Monthly Archives: March 2012

Executive Function

What I really love about child development is many of the concepts and ideas really, truly make sense to most people. Unlike many other fields, the terms that developmental psychologists use to describe concepts are usually pretty straight forward. For example, “Attachment” yep, it means exactly what it says, how well attached- or emotionally connected-is the child to an adult caregiver.“Reinforcement” and “punishment”, clear as day, reinforcement occurs when you do something to increase the chances of a behavior happening again (e.g., giving a child and M&M when they use the potty during toilet training) and punishment is something you do when you want to stop a behavior from happening again (e.g., time outs as punishment for hitting a sibling).
Of course there are quite a few concepts that have wacky names that don’t seem at all intuitive to most parents.  What am I talking about? Things like Executive Functioning… To me this sounds like something that is done in a large, stuffy board room, with a bunch of people dressed in suits, in order to get some big deal accomplished. (Much like The Apprentice Boardroom below)

When it comes to child development Executive Functioning, is actually a really interesting and almost overwhelming concept.  And actually the name is a pretty accurate description if you can disassociate the term “executive” from “businessperson”. Executive functioning is the group of mental processes that a child uses to achieve a range of goals. That makes perfect sense, right? No it doesn’t! Executive function is really hard to explain because it encompasses a whole bunch different mental processes (meaning things that you do in your head!).

Its easier to understand executive functioning by understanding some of the parts that make up the whole:

Attention: The ability to focus attention when needed is an important part of children’s executive functioning. For example, a child’s ability to sit still and read a book or their ability to attend to a long list of directions before starting an activity.
Working Memory: This is the ability to keep something in mind and to pull it out of memory when you need it. This can be something like remembering to take out the garbage after you finish your homework or remembering to complete all parts of multi-step math problem.
Task Shifting: This is the ability to switch between tasks and directions depending on the situation. For example, in music class children may play freeze dance. Children have to understand the rules of the game and shift and adjust their behavior depending on whether the music is playing (they can dance) or if it turns off (they must stop).
Inhibition: This is a child’s ability to STOP their behavior. For example, if you leave a cookie out on the table and tell a toddler not to touch it until you come back, you are testing his inhibition skills (same goes for adults!). (The image above of a child with 2 marshmallows is a classic executive functioning task)
These are just a few of the concepts that fall under the umbrella of executive functioning. Planning, flexible thinking, problem solving, and multi-tasking also play a role.

Why should parents care or think about executive functioning? Well, executive functioning skills tend to be highly correlated with a range of academic abilities. Kids who have better executive functioning skills (meaning kids who can pay attention, inhibit their behavior, plan activities, switch and adjust appropriately to directions, etc) tend to better in school (Blair & Razza, 2007;Bull, Espy, & Wiebe, 2008; Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007).

It is important for parents to understand that this is a developmental process.  Executive function skills develop over time- a long time!  Some research suggests that the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain behind your forehead that is largely responsible for controlling executive functions) doesn’t fully develop until your 20’s (Department of Health and Human Services)!  So parents, be aware of executive functioning skills with your children and  practice and reinforce behavior that is related to executive functioning (attention: sitting still; inhibition: no hitting, etc) but remember that these skills are developing and will be developing for quiet some time!

Note: Lindsay Lohan is 25 years old (DOB July, 1986).  Her prefrontal cortex and executive functioning abilities are likely not fully developed yet.

Blair, C. and Razza, R. P. (2007), Relating Effortful Control, Executive Function, and False Belief Understanding to Emerging Math and Literacy Ability in Kindergarten. Child Development, 78: 647–663. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01019.x
Bull, R., Espy, K. A., Wiebe, S. A. (2008). Short-term memory, working memory, and executive functioning in preschoolers: Longitudinal predictors of mathematical achievement at age 7 years. Developmental Neuropsychology, 33, 205-228.
Graziano, P.A., Reavis,R.D., Keane, S.P.,& Calkins,S.D. (2007). The role of emotion regulation in children’s early academic success, Journal of School Psychology, 45, 3-19.

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