While the opening statement, “As essential as they are, we aren’t born with the skills that enable us to control impulses, make plans, and stay focused. We are born with the potential to develop these capacities—or not—depending on our experiences during infancy, throughout childhood, and into adolescence,” was not new information to me, the next section, which noted that studies have found that certain interventions in young children have demonstrated effectiveness with executive functioning improvement, caused me to read on.
I appreciated the way the paper explained executive functioning and thought parents might be interested in learning more about this important skill. Essentially, there are three buckets- working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Working memory is best described as how we hold onto information without losing track of it when we are interrupted by something else. For example, in elementary classrooms, when a teacher gives multi-step directions such as, “take out your writing folder, grab a pencil, and meet me on the carpet,” a student must hold those three directions in their head (for a short period of time) in order to execute all those behaviors.
Inhibitory control is a skill used to resist temptation, remain focused on a task, and think before acting or speaking. The article notes, “Children rely on this skill to wait until they are called on when they know the answer, to be good at games like “Simon Says” and “Red Light/Green Light,” to stop themselves from yelling at or hitting a child who has inadvertently bumped into them, and to ignore distractions and stay on task in school.”
Finally, cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust to changes in our lives. This skill helps children persevere through challenging tasks like learning something new or problem-solving a conflict with a friend, particularly when there are different perspectives.
In elementary classrooms, children who are challenged with focus and attention, emotional regulation, completing their work, and clearly communicating with others find themselves in need of more support to further develop executive functioning skills. Researchers note that the “lifelong importance of these skills and their effect on learning makes it clear that parents need to be aware of what we now understand about the development of executive function skills, the experiences that foster the healthy emergence of these skills, and the conditions that appear to undermine them.”
So, the good news is that neuroplasticity plays a role here. Scientists have developed computer training programs that effectively help children with attention and working memory. These programs strengthen neural pathways that control executive function skills. It occurs through what they call “staircase” training. The program is adaptive and it adjusts the difficulty of a task in line with performance improvement.
Additionally, there are other supports that can be put in place in the home and classroom. Parents and teachers can provide checklists for getting ready such as at home in the morning or at pack-up before pick-up. They can assign time limits to tasks such as 5 minutes to brush teeth and put pjs on or 5 minutes to do two math problems. Finally, routines are very important for children both at home and in the classroom such as a routine for homework or a routine for morning arrival in the classroom.
Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child also recommends elementary schools assess students executive functioning skills. The truth is that the development of executive functioning skills does not automatically occur with maturity. Children will not “outgrow” deficits. Interventions are necessary and when schools and families understand this and work together in support of common goals, the outcomes are many.