In the field of early childhood, executive function is becoming a hot topic. But what exactly are these skills, and why are they so important to early learning experiences? The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” A useful analogy is to compare these skills to an administrative assistant in the brain, pulling together and sorting files, managing the influx of new information, and turning away distractions. In the developed brain, these skills allow adults to filter out distractions, attend to the task at hand, set long-term and short-term goals, and control or minimize impulses. McDermott and Fox (2019), citing the work of Davidson, Amso, Anderson, & DIamond (2006), state that “executive functions (EF) are cognitive skills that are essential for engaging in complex goal-directed behavior. Multiple skills comprise the broad construct of EF. Primary among them are the skills of working memory (the ability to maintain and manipulate information), response inhibition/inhibitory control initiating purposeful action and restraining impulsive behavior) and attention shifting/cognitive flexibility (adaptively adjusting behavior to meet situational demands)” (p. 120).
The graphic demonstrates how the developing mind supports the establishment of foundational and higher order thinking skills. The identified “Core Executive Functions”--working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control/regulation (inhibitory control)--lay the foundation for future learning, including life, numeracy, and literacy skills. Supporting the development of these three skills provides for the development of higher level thinking skills, reasoning, planning, and problem-solving.
The Center on the Developing Child provides many resources regarding these topics in early brain development. This introductory video provides insight into some of these key concepts:
Before moving on, describe what you believe executive function looks like in your own classroom in the comment box below.
Why such an emphasis on executive function? Executive function skills, which begin to develop in early childhood, are a protective factor against toxic stress. Combined with positive and responsive relationships, these skills help build resilience to adverse factors associated with toxic stress. Environmental and biochemical factors associated with prolonged activation of the fight-or-flight response, in the absence of protective factors, have detrimental effects on the developing brain. Early learning experiences, both at home and in the classroom, have a significant long-term impact on an individual’s ability to develop resilience, learn, and adapt to stimuli--both positive and negative.