Executive function: The most important set of skills we can teach our kids

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.

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, the three following skills are involved in executive function:

  • Working Memory – The capacity to hold and manipulate information over short periods of time. Like that time you remembered a phone number long enough to dial it!
  • Inhibitory Control – The ability to master and filter our thoughts in order to direct attention, resist temptation, break habits, ignore distractions, and think before we act; allowing us to play games such as Simon Says!
  • Cognitive/Mental Flexibility – It is the ability to apply different rules at different settings, and to adjust to them based on a changing environment, demands, priorities, or perspectives. Learning from our mistakes and adjusting accordingly.

Executive function is not a given, it needs to be nurtured and trained in order to be strengthened. This is especially true during early childhood. Serve and return interactions between children and significant adults in their lives play an important role in the acquisition of those skills. Parents can also start working on executive function with their children with age-appropriate exercises and games. For example, teaching toddlers to take turns, or providing opportunities for them to maintain focus on specific tasks, can start building the executive function skills that will be incredibly important later on in life!

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