Early experiences –whether positive or negative– have a profound impact on the developing brain and its basic neural circuitry, which in turn provides the foundation for more complex higher-level skills. Of these higher-level skills, executive function has been gaining a lot of attention lately -and rightly so. Executive function helps us focus on different information at the same time, make decisions, review and change plans as necessary, and control our emotions and impulses. Laying a strong foundation in order to allow the acquisition of these executive function skills is one of the most important tasks of the early childhood years, because they are so critical to adult functioning.
Executive function serves as the brain’s air traffic controller –managing all the different signals, impulses, and desires of the brain. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is critical to executive function, but it does not act alone, as it controls behavior through interactions with the rest of the brain. By the time a child’s first birthday comes along, the brain –which originally worked almost as a set of isolated neurons– starts to function as a large network of interconnected areas. This allows coordinated action and the management of different impulses. As adults, this translates into an ability to multitask, display self-control, stay focused in spite of distractions, and follow multi-step directions –all critical to achieving our goals, getting along with others, and becoming contributing members of society. Continue reading