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What is executive functioning?

Mom and little girl playing with wooden blocks

Key points:

  1. Early experiences profoundly shape the developing brain and lay the foundation for complex skills.
  2. Executive function skills, like multitasking and self-control, rely on the brain’s interconnected networks.
  3. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child identifies three key executive function skills: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
  4. Nurturing and training executive function is crucial during early childhood through interactions and age-appropriate activities.

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. One of these higher-level skills is executive function, which 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 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 for adulthood.

Defining executive function skills

The 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 functioning, 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 despite 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 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 in 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 to be strengthened. This is especially true during early childhood. As we have seen in previous posts, the environment influences children’s development. Serve and return interactions between children and significant adults in their lives play an important role in the acquisition of those skills. You can also start working on executive functions with your little one with age-appropriate exercises and games. For example, teaching them 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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