Everyone has executive function skills. They are, essentially, what allow us to function in life! But we each have more or less developed executive function skills:
Do you find it difficult to concentrate sometimes?
How is your ability to remember basic information?
Are you able to think outside the box?
If you’re struggling with any of these, don’t worry—they are complex skills we call executive functions of the brain.
They can be hard enough for adults like us to master, so imagine trying to achieve these things as a kid!
But the truth is: we begin to develop our executive function skills early. They determine whether we thrive as a social butterfly at school or get stuck as a wallflower at prom. They decide whether we excel academically or fall behind with bad grades.
Executive functioning in children is an even better predictor than IQ for their social skills AND academic skills. In fact, executive function skills have been touted “the biological foundations of learning.”
With all this hanging in the balance, wouldn’t you like to support the development your child’s executive function skills? In this article, I am going to give you an introduction to what executive function skills are, their larger implications, and how to improve them in your children.
We’ll dive into some fancy-sounding words and complex topics, but I promise, by the end of this article, you will begin to see executive functions as child’s play! Make sure to have your coffee nearby as we explore this fascinating and important topic.
What are the main executive function skills?
Executive function skills develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is what allows us to take action following our thoughts around our goals. It is the seat of our personality traits in the brain, as well as our memory and some facets of language.
The way in which the prefrontal cortex controls our executive functions has been described as our “air traffic control system.” Constantly confronted with information, the air traffic control system allows us to organize the information received and analyze it before implementing an action, all while maintaining focus.
Neuroscientists identify 3 core executive function skills as well as 3 more complex ones:
1. Working memory
Unlike long-term memory, working memory allows us to retain information for the short term. Think of the RAM system in your computer: the more windows you have open, the more memory you are using. Just like in life, your brain cannot focus on more and more information and activities without delegating less concentration to each at any given time, and vice versa.
2. Inhibitory control
This is what prevents us from getting distracted. When our working memory is too full, we use our inhibitory control to select the most important pieces of information to focus on. It allows us to control our impulses, avoid distraction, and behave according to the social contract.
3. Cognitive flexibility
Another way we can abide by the social contract is by understanding nuanced situations and thinking outside of the box. Creative and critical thinking are part of our cognitive flexibility, as are keeping an open mind and adapting our strategy when something doesn’t work.
Complex executive function skills
These are slightly more specific than the 3 core executive function skills:
But I think we can agree that they are no less important! To be able to function as adults, we need to be good problem solvers, and we need to use our reason and plan ahead.
I thought these were worth mentioning, but for the rest of the article, I will focus on the 3 core executive function skills: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
Real-life implications of core executive function skills
The development of your child’s executive functions is like a self-feeding cycle. The more developed the EF skills, the better your child is able to function in life. The better your child is able to function in life, the more she develops her EF skills, and so on.
For example, bilingual children and adults are better at conflict resolution than monolingual individuals. They are bilingual because they have a need or at least a strong desire to speak two languages. Their executive function skills helped them to learn two languages, and through the acquisition of fluency, they further developed the executive function skills that allow them to manage conflicts.
What affects the development of executive function skills?
BUT stress, loneliness, and physical unfitness impair prefrontal cortex function and therefore impair executive function skills.
What do we use our executive functions for?
How to foster executive function skills in your children
In researching the topic of executive function skills, one message was clear to me: we are not born with these skills already in place, but rather, we have merely the potential to develop them.
The time at which we are most sensitive to developing our executive functions is between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, although learning these skills begins before and continues into adolescence.
I really believe that merely by reading this article, and perhaps by doing your own research on this topic, you are already well-poised to help your child develop her skills.
As I have always said, you don’t need to “teach” your young child anything. It’s the same for executive functions. You can’t sit down and think, “Okay, I want my child to do well in school, so which executive function should I teach her today?”
All you have to do is present the opportunity for your child to naturally develop her executive functions. Resist the temptation to do everything for your child. Instead, let your child do things herself whenever she shows interest (even if you think it’s in their best interest to just do it as the parent).
If you continually allow your child to develop her autonomy without interference, you will see her executive functions start to develop in time. In order to continually improve them, you need to seek opportunities to increase the difficulty of the activities in increments.
Above all, do not force any sort of learning on your child. Let her guide you to know what she is ready for and when.
Next Monday, I will publish a guest article by my friend Daniela from My Pretty Good Home about how she uses housework to develop her daughter’s skills naturally. So look out for that post!
For now, here are some ideas to get you started:
Exercise (in particular, aerobic activity and martial arts)
Mindfulness (meditation, awareness exercises, body scan exercise)
18-36 months: language, storytelling, matching, sorting, imaginary play
3-5 years: imaginary play, storytelling, movement with songs or games, quiet time (independent play)
The importance of executive function skills in children
Do you see how important it is to improve and develop executive function skills? Our children do not need to learn letters and numbers before they are taught the life skills of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
In fact, a proficiency in executive function will naturally lead to a positive social life and academic achievement in children—and in adults, the integration of time management, multitasking, assessing, and planning.
Want more resources? Check out these articles from around the web:
Jessica is an American expat living the dream in Normandy. She is wife to a French hubby and mama to a Franco-American daughter, born in 2018, and one whippet. Passionate about all stages of writing, this Francophile created her blog in 2020 to help others navigate motherhood with a focus on conscious parenting and bilingual parenting. Bonne lecture !
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