Child executive function

What is Executive Function? How Executive Functioning Skills Affect Early Development

As essential as they are, we aren’t born with the skills that enable us to control impulses, make plans, and stay focused. We are born with the potential to develop these capacities—or not—depending on our experiences during infancy, throughout childhood, and into adolescence. Our genes provide the blueprint, but the early environments in which children live leave a lasting signature on those genes.

This signature influences how or whether that genetic potential is expressed in the brain circuits that underlie the executive function capacities children will rely on throughout their lives. These skills develop through practice and are strengthened by the experiences through which they are applied and honed. Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in child care and preschool programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities.

Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive function.

More Information on Executive Function

Guide: A Guide to Executive Function
Learn more about the basics of building executive function skills, and learn strategies that can help build them.

Working Paper 11: Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function
This in-depth working paper explains executive function works, and gives recommendations for ways that caregivers and policymakers can effectively respond to the science.

This refers to a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities is critical to healthy development through middle childhood and adolescence. Just as we rely on our well-developed personal “air traffic control system” to make it through our complex days without stumbling, young children depend on their emerging executive function skills to help them as they learn to read and write, remember the steps in performing an arithmetic problem, take part in class discussions or group projects, and enter into and sustain play with other children. The increasingly competent executive functioning of childhood and adolescence enable children to plan and act in a way that makes them good students, classroom citizens, and friends.

Children who do not have opportunities to use and strengthen these skills, and, therefore, fail to become proficient—or children who lack the capacity for proficiency because of disabilities or, for that matter, adults who lose it due to brain injury or old age—have a very hard time managing the routine tasks of daily life. Studying, sustaining friendships, holding down a job, or managing a crisis pose even bigger challenges.

Correcting Popular Misconceptions of Science

The fact that young children have a difficult time with self-control, planning, ignoring distractions, and adjusting to new demands is hardly news to the adults who care for them. It is not widely recognized, however, that these capacities do not automatically develop with maturity over time. Furthermore, it is even less well known that the developing brain circuitry related to these kinds of skills follows an extended timetable that begins in early childhood and continues past adolescence and that it provides the common foundation on which early learning and social skills are built. Based on this new understanding, the following common misconceptions about the development of executive function skills can be laid to rest.

  • Contrary to popular belief, learning to control impulses, pay attention, and retain information actively in one’s memory does not happen automatically as children mature, and young children who have problems with these skills will not necessarily outgrow them.
    The evidence is clear that, by 12 months of age, a child’s experiences are helping to lay the foundation for the ongoing development of executive function skills. These early abilities to focus attention, control impulses, and hold information “on-line” in working memory appear to be easily disrupted by highly adverse early experiences or biological disruptions. Evidence also shows that early interventions aimed at improving these capacities before a child enters school can have beneficial impacts across a broad array of important outcomes.
  • Contrary to popular belief, young children who do not stay on task, lose control of their emotions, or are easily distracted are not “bad kids” who are being intentionally uncooperative and belligerent.
    Young children with compromised or delayed executive function skills can display very challenging behaviors for which they are often blamed. In most circumstances, however, it is the protracted development of the prefrontal cortex that is to “blame. ” Efforts to help affected children develop better executive function skills and adjustments of the demands placed upon them to avoid overtaxing their capabilities are much more helpful than punishment for difficult behavior. Particularly when adverse experiences or environments elicit a toxic stress response, it can be very difficult for even the most competent children to enlist whatever executive function skills they have. In these circumstances, the provision of a safe and predictable environment offers the sense of security needed for successful behavior change to occur.
  • Contrary to the theory that guides some early education programs that focus solely on teaching letters and numbers, explicit efforts to foster executive functioning have positive influences on instilling early literacy and numeracy skills.
    Early evidence from randomized trials of interventions designed to foster the cluster of executive function skills (working memory, attention, inhibitory control, etc. ) indicates benefits in early literacy and math skills compared with children who experience “regular” classroom activities. Indeed, there is also evidence that emerging executive function skills contribute to early reading and math achievement during the pre-kindergarten years and into kindergarten. This is not surprising insofar as the acquisition of traditional academic skills depends on a child’s capacity to follow and remember classroom rules, control emotions, focus attention, sit still, and learn on demand through listening and watching. Neuroscientists are also beginning to relate specific aspects of executive functioning, notably attentional skills, to specific steps involved in learning to read and to work with numbers. It is important to emphasize that this research is in its infancy, and much remains to be learned. Not only do we need to understand the effectiveness factors that account for the emerging impacts on school readiness from interventions designed to focus on executive function skills, but we also need to examine whether effective early education programs that focus directly on social, numeracy, and language skills also have positive impacts on executive functioning. Thus, the highly interrelated nature of these capacities makes it difficult to label any single intervention as focused explicitly (or not) on the critical domains of executive functioning.

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The phrase “executive function” refers to a set of skills. These skills underlie the capacity to plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and stay focused despite distractions, among others.

Much like an air traffic control system at an airport helps planes on different runways land and take off safely, executive function skills help our brains prioritize tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses.

No One Is Born with Executive Function Skills, but Nearly Everyone Can Learn Them.

Our genes provide the blueprint for learning these skills, but they develop through experiences
and practice. The foundation is laid in infancy, when babies first learn to pay attention. Relationships with responsive caregivers are particularly important at this stage. Something as simple as playing a game of peekaboo can help build the early foundations of working memory and self-control as a baby anticipates the surprise.

Adults set up the framework for children to learn and practice these skills over time by
establishing routines, breaking big tasks into smaller chunks, and encouraging games that promote imagination, role-playing, following rules, and controlling impulses. These techniques are known as “scaffolding.” Just as a scaffold supports workers while a building is being constructed, adults can use these activities to support the emergence of children’s executive
function skills until they can perform them on their own.

These skills typically develop most rapidly between ages 3-5, followed by another spike in development during the adolescent and early adult years. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to develop them, but, as children’s executive function skills grow, adults can gradually allow children to manage more and more aspects of their environment.

Building Children’s Executive Function Skills Benefits Everyone.

The increasingly competent executive functioning of children and adolescents enables them to plan and act in a way that makes them good students, classroom citizens, and friends.

In turn, this helps them grow into adults capable of juggling a multitude of commitments, such as parenting, employment, continuing education, and civic involvement. Even health is affected, as strong executive function helps people stick to healthy habits and reduce stress. The more a society invests in building the executive functioning of its children, the greater dividends it will see in the future.

A Guide to Executive Function

Executive function and self-regulation skills are like an air traffic control system in the brain—they help us manage information, make decisions, and plan ahead. We need these skills at every stage of life, and while no one is born with them, we are all born with the potential to develop them. But, how do we do that? The Center on the Developing Child created this Guide to Executive Function to walk you through everything you need to know about these skills and how to develop and practice them throughout life.

Step 1: Executive Function 101

If you just need a quick introduction to the basics about executive function and self-regulation, start here:

Executive Function & Self-Regulation

Get the facts about executive function and self-regulation skills—what they are, what they help us do, how they develop, and why ensuring that children learn and practice them benefits everyone.

InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

This five-minute video shows how children use executive function skills and provides scientific insight into how those skills develop and grow, as well as what can disrupt their development.

Step 2: The Science of Executive Function

Ready to move beyond the basics? The resources below provide more details about the science behind our executive function and self-regulation skills.

Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function

This working paper explains executive function as an air traffic control system for the brain and helps clear up some common misconceptions about the science behind executive function skills.

How Children and Adults Can Build Core Capabilities for Life

Every day we take on the ordinary, sometimes challenging, tasks of work, school, parenting, relationships, and just managing our busy lives. How do we navigate these tasks successfully? Science offers an explanation.

Step 3: Building Executive Function Skills

The best way to strengthen executive function skills, at any age, is through practice! Here are some resources for helping children, youth, and adults do just that—as well as some suggestions for creating environments that support skill-building.

Activities Guide: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

This 16-page guide, filled with age-appropriate activities for practicing executive function skills, can be downloaded in full or you can pick and choose the age ranges you need. (Some of these guides are also available in French and Arabic.)

Building the Core Skills Youth Need for Life: A Guide for Education and Social Service Practitioners

This two-page guide focuses on the particular needs of adolescents during this critical time for skill development, focusing on ways to manage school, work, outside interests, and social relationships.

Building the Skills Adults Need for Life: A Guide for Practitioners

It’s never too late to learn and practice executive function skills, and this four-page guide has tips specifically designed for supporting adults and for reducing stress in their lives.

Development of Executive Functions in Children - Child Development

Executive functions are cognitive skills that we need in order to control and regulate our thoughts, emotions and actions in moments of conflict or under the influence of distractions. Psychologists sometimes distinguish between "cold" executive functions, which are strictly cognitive skills (such as mental numeracy), and "hot" executive functions that help regulate emotions (such as the ability to manage anger).

There are three types of executive functions:

1. Self-control - the ability to resist temptation and do the right thing instead. Self-control helps children focus, act less impulsively, and stay focused while doing work.

2. Working memory - the ability to remember information, guess where it might be used, connect ideas, and prioritize.

3. Cognitive flexibility - the ability to think creatively and change one's behavior in accordance with changing circumstances. Cognitive flexibility allows us to use our imagination and creativity to solve problems.

How important is this?

Executive functions are very important for a child's development. This is evidenced by the fact that by the extent to which the child's executive functions are developed at an early age, it can be assumed with a high degree of certainty how high his school performance will be, how much he will be able to adapt in society, how much he will adhere to a healthy lifestyle and etc.

Therefore, it is extremely important for parents to find ways to support the development of executive functions in the first years of a child's life.

What is known already and ?

It takes time for a child to fully develop executive functions. This is partly due to the slow maturation of the prefrontal cortex. Development of executive functions becomes noticeable when children remind themselves of important goals (for example, when they refuse to watch TV in order to do their homework).

Also, development of executive functions occurs when children learn to analyze their environment in order to decide how to act in a given situation (for example, they understand that they need to learn lessons in order to pass an exam, and therefore refuse to watch TV). Lack of executive development may explain, for example, why young children seem stubborn and refuse to follow their parents' logical directions (eg, refuse to wear a hat in winter). Often, executive functions are poorly developed in children raised in poor families.

Children are very sensitive to early emotional experiences that may interfere with the development of executive functions or, conversely, contribute to it. For example, stress can be so detrimental to the development of a child's executive functions that their behavior may be similar to that of a child with ADHD (which is why children with impaired executive functions are often misdiagnosed as ADHD).

On the other hand, positive emotional experiences (eg, good relationships with parents at an early age) can protect the child from the negative impact of stressors (eg, difficult family conditions). Therefore, executive functions in such children develop normally. Children of responsive parents who use a gentle approach to parenting rather than strict discipline also tend to develop their executive functions better.

Well-developed executive functions lead to high academic achievement, well-developed social and emotional skills. In the early grades, executive functions have a stronger influence on a child's academic performance than intelligence and ability to read or count. Psychologists suggest that this is due to the fact that executive functions help the child navigate in an ever-changing environment. Therefore, their development is especially important for those children who grow up in disadvantaged conditions.

Separate executive functions are connected with the fact that the child understands the thoughts and actions of other people. For example, a child understands that other people may have ideas about the world that are different from their own. This is a necessary skill for successful social interaction.

The benefits of well-developed executive functions are clear. At the same time, poor development of executive functions is characteristic of a number of disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral and learning disorders, autism, depression, etc. Early problems with the development of executive functions can persist throughout childhood and even adolescence.

What can do ?

Working with a child psychologist can help preschoolers develop their executive functions. Through this, they can improve academic performance, develop social and emotional skills, and create new neural connections. Early intervention can also reduce the difficulties associated with disorders such as ADHD and conduct disorders. Such classes give good results for children aged 4-5 years. In the course of such classes, the child learns the skills of self-regulation, most often in a playful way.

There are also a number of activities that help develop the child's executive functions. Such activities include music, yoga, meditation, martial arts, etc.

It is also worth paying attention to the atmosphere in which learning takes place in the lower grades. Children should be more active during the lesson, so spend more time in small groups and less time in large groups. Children with well-developed executive functions require less intervention from teachers. It is also important to eliminate all stress factors in the learning process. Younger children should also be taught in a playful way. For example, you can role-play various social situations with him. So the child learns more about different social roles and learns to adapt to constantly changing situations.

It is important to understand that executive functions develop over many years. And even a highly motivated child finds it difficult to follow all the instructions of the parents (for example, not to eat cookies before dinner) or to focus on something for a long time. So give your child time.

8 Key Skills in Children that are Influenced by Executive Function

Executive function is a hypothetical set of high-level processes that allow us to plan certain actions in accordance with a common goal, organize and perform assigned tasks.
Research shows that the best predictors of success in school and in life are not IQ scores (not surprisingly), but executive function ability. The executive function, in fact, plays the main role of the brain, it is the work of integrating brain systems to perform high-level cognitive tasks, including planning, problem representation and decision-making. According to a Harvard University study, executive function skills help us focus on multiple streams of information at once, manage errors, make informed decisions, and revise plans as needed.

For children, executive function is important. Executive function skills are the building blocks for learning to read and write, to perform arithmetic operations, and to socialize. To put it simply, depending on the strength or weakness of the executive function, it will help or hinder the development of the cognitive and social potential of the child.

  • Basic Rules for Raising a Genius

Below are executive functioning skills that can affect your child's daily life.

1. Impulse control
What it means: Impulse control helps your child think before acting.
Why it's important: Children with poor impulse control may blurt out inappropriate things. Such children are more likely to exhibit risky behavior.

2. Emotional control
What it means: Emotional control helps your child control his feelings.
Why it matters: Children with weak emotional control are able to "go too far." They do not stand up to criticism and are prone to stress when something goes wrong in their opinion.

3. Flexible thinking
What does it mean: Flexible thinking allows the child to adapt to unexpected circumstances.
Why this is important: Children with a "hard" type of thinking are perplexed by such situations, they are disappointed if they have to think about something from different angles.

4. Working memory
What it means: Working memory helps your child retain key information.
Why it's important: Children with poor working memory have difficulty even if they take notes to themselves and hear you repeat several times.

5. Self-monitoring
What does it mean: Self-monitoring allows your child to evaluate his actions.
Why it matters: Children with a weak skill of self-control of knowledge find it difficult to assess the effectiveness of their actions.

6. Planning and prioritizing
What it means: Planning and prioritizing will help your child identify and choose a strategy from a number of options.
Why it's important: Children with poor planning and prioritization skills have difficulty picking out the most important parts of a problem.

7. Problem representation
What it means: Defining a problem space helps your child identify the problem itself and possible solutions.

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