By Ms. Lynn Pendleton
Executive function is not a term many parents will have heard of but scientists and researchers are recognizing that it is one of the most important skill sets that young children can develop for future success academically, socially and personally. Well-developed Executive Function in adults also delivers huge benefits to society. Interestingly we aren’t born with executive function skills however, we are born with the potential to develop them. These skills allow us to retain and work with information in our brains, focus our attention, filter distractions, and switch mental gears. That is the ability to multi task and is often likened to the job of an air traffic control system managing the arrival and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways at a busy airport.
There are three basic dimensions of these skills:
Working memory — The ability to hold information in the mind and use it.
Inhibitory control — The ability to master thoughts and impulses so as to resist temptations, distractions, and habits, and to pause and think before acting.
Cognitive flexibility — The capacity to switch gears and adjust to changing demands, priorities, or perspectives.
These skills help us remember the information we need to complete a task, filter distractions, resist inappropriate or non-productive impulses, and sustain attention during a particular activity. We use them to set goals and plan ways to meet them, assess our progress along the way, and adjust the plan if necessary, while managing frustration so we don’t act on it.
The process is a slow one that begins in infancy, continues into early adulthood, and is shaped by our experiences. Children build their skills through engagement in meaningful social interactions and enjoyable activities that draw on self-regulatory skills at increasingly demanding levels. At EtonHouse, we aim to develop each child into a well-balanced individual through engaging environments that support children’s curiosity and wonder; that engage children and that offer them a wide range of materials to work in purposefully designed learning areas.
In infancy, interactions with adults help babies focus attention, build working memory, and manage reactions to stimulating experiences. Through creative play, games, and schoolwork, children practice integrating their attention, working memory, and self-control to support planning, and flexible problem-solving, and sustained engagement.
As children develop these capacities, they need practice reflecting on their experiences, talking about what they are doing and why, monitoring their actions, considering possible next steps, and evaluating the effectiveness of their decisions.
Adults play a critical role in supporting, or “scaffolding,” the development of these skills, first by helping children complete challenging tasks, and then by gradually stepping back to let children manage the process independently—and learn from their mistakes—as they are ready and able to do so.
The activities that follow have been identified as age-appropriate ways to strengthen various components of executive function and come from Harvard University Centre of the Developing Child and you can read further on the link below.
Executive Function Activities for 6- to 18-month-olds
Executive Function Activities for 18- to 36-month-olds
Executive Function Activities for 3- to 5-year-olds