In a nutshell
- Executive functions refer to the set of self-regulatory skills involved in the conscious, goal-directed modulation of thought, emotion, and action. Children are not born with the skills that enable them to control their impulses, make plans, and stay focused. But children are born with the potential to develop these capacities.
- Executive functions are a quite complicated issue, but it is also one of the “Hot topics” in the educational and psychological fields.
Executive function (or functions) refers to a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions. We could also say that executive functions refer to the set of self-regulatory skills involved in the conscious, goal-directed modulation of thought, emotion, and action.
Children are not born with the skills that enable them to control their impulses, make plans, and stay focused. But children are born with the potential to develop these capacities. How these skills develop during infancy, childhood, and adolescence depends on the child’s experiences. These skills, called executive function (EF), develop through practice and are strengthened by the experiences through which they are applied and honed.
Executive function refers to a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions. We could also say that executive functions refer to the set of self-regulatory skills involved in the conscious, goal-directed modulation of thought, emotion, and action.
Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities are critical to healthy development throughout middle childhood and adolescence.
Interest in executive function and its development during childhood is based in large part on evidence that individual differences in these skills predict a wide range of important developmental outcomes, including school readiness, school performance and social competence in adolescence, and better physical health, higher socioeconomic status (SES), and fewer drug-related problems and criminal convictions in adulthood. The predictive power of EF is often greater than that of the intelligence quotient (IQ), and long-term predictions are seen even when controlling for IQ and childhood SES.
We know now that EF skills provide an important foundation for learning and adaptation across a wide range of contexts, and children who arrive at school with well-practised EF skills may find it easier to sit still, pay attention, remember and follow rules, and flexibly adopt new perspectives.
As neurocognitive skills, EF skills are attentional skills, or ways of using attention, that depend on specific neural circuits in our brain, in this case involving regions in the prefrontal cortex and other areas. These attentional skills serve to modulate attention in the service of a goal – flexibly, over time, and selectively – and consequently, they serve to control our behaviour in corresponding ways.
What are the executive functions?
Three processes of executive functions are most often highlighted: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive or mental flexibility.
Working memory is the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our heads over short periods of time. It provides a mental surface on which we can place important information so that it is ready to use in the course of our everyday life. It enables children to remember and connect information from one paragraph to the next, to perform an arithmetic problem with several steps, to keep track of the moves and make a logical next step in a game of checkers, and to follow multistep instructions without reminders (“Go to your cubbies, put away your storybooks, bring back your arithmetic books, and open them to page 30.”) It also helps children with social interactions, such as taking turns in group activities or easily rejoining a game after stepping away to get a drink.
Common manifestations of weak working memory in children are, for example:
- Difficulties in following multistep directions
- Forgetting to bring materials to and from school
- Forgetting to hand in homework
- Forgetting to do chores
- Forgetting when assignments are due
Read more about working memory here.
Inhibitory control is the skill we use to master and filter our thoughts and impulses so that we can resist temptations, distractions, and habits, and to pause and think before we act. Inhibitory control involves deliberately suppressing attention (or other responses) to something (e.g., ignoring a distraction or stopping an impulsive utterance). It makes possible selective, focused, and sustained attention, prioritization, and action. This capacity keeps us from acting as completely impulsive creatures who do whatever comes into our minds. It is the skill we call on to push aside daydreams about what we would rather be doing so we can focus on important tasks. It is the skill we rely on to help us “bite our tongue” and say something nice, and to control our emotions at the same time, even when we are angry, rushed, or frustrated. 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.
Common manifestations of weak inhibitory control in children are, for example:
- Acting without thinking
- Interrupting others
- Blurting out comments or answers to questions in class
- Talking or playing too loudly
- Acting wild or out of control
Cognitive or mental flexibility is the capacity to nimbly switch gears and adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives. It is what enables us to apply different rules in different settings. Cognitive flexibility involves thinking about something in multiple ways – for example, task switching or considering someone else’s perspective on a situation. If a friend asks if we like her new haircut and we don’t, we are able to flexibly shift to the social convention that governs not hurting people’s feelings. Likewise, we teach our children about “outside voices” and “inside voices” and the different situations in which they should use each. As the author of The Executive Brain, Elkhonon Goldberg, notes, “the ability to stay on track is an asset, but being ‘dead in the track’ is not.” Stated differently, self-control and persistence are assets; rigidity is not. Cognitive flexibility enables us to catch mistakes and fix them, to revise ways of doing things in light of new information, to consider something from a fresh perspective, and to think outside the box. Children deploy this skill to learn exceptions to rules of grammar, to approach a science experiment in different ways until they get it to work, or to try different strategies when they are working out a conflict with another child.
Common manifestations of weak cognitive or mental flexibility in children are, for example:
- Being upset by changes in plan
- Resistance to change or routine
- Getting stuck on one topic or activity
- Not being able to come up with more than one solution to a problem
- Difficulty in handling open-ended tasks
“Hot” and “cool” executive functions
We know that it can be a lot harder to think things through in the heat of the moment or when we’re frustrated or angry. But why is that? What’s happening in our brain? To understand why children – and adults – make decisions differently depending on whether the stakes are high or low, it helps to learn about “hot” and “cool” executive functions.
Hot executive functions refer to the self-management skills we use in situations where emotions run high. Cool (or cold) executive functions refer to the skills we use when emotions aren’t really a factor.
Cool EF, assessed in relatively arbitrary or decontextualized tasks (e.g., measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control), rely more on neural networks involving lateral parts of the prefrontal cortex. For example, a widely used test of working memory asks children to remember a list of numbers and then say them in reverse order, from last to first. This test is challenging, to be sure. But it’s not overly emotional.
Hot EF refer to those aspects of EF that are needed in situations that are motivationally significant. Hot EF are typically assessed in tasks that require the flexible reappraisal of whether to approach or avoid a salient stimulus. One example is the delay of gratification (which involves avoiding a more salient immediate reward and approaching a less salient one). Hot EF are also involved in deliberate emotion regulation. Hot executive functioning skills allow us to think more objectively about our own meaningful decisions. These skills can help us resist temptation for the sake of a more important goal.
Hot and cool EF, which typically work together in solving real-world problems, are both forms of deliberate, effortful, top-down, self-regulatory processing that depend on the prefrontal cortex but vary in the extent to which they require the management of motivation and emotion, including the goal-directed modulation of basic approach and avoidance motivations.
Development of executive function
Children are not born with the skills that enable them to control impulses, make plans, and stay focused. But children are born with the potential to develop these capacities. How these skills develop during infancy, childhood, and adolescence depends on the child’s experiences.
Children’s capacities to retain and use new information, focus attention, control impulses, and make plans are acquired during early childhood, but the full range of executive function skills continues to develop into the adolescent years.
The first signs of these capacities emerge toward the end of the first year of life. Children begin to display gains in selective attention with external distraction being less predominant.
At the age of two, children become more capable of problem-solving with the acquisition of language. They begin to use language to regulate behaviour. At two, children are also able to follow verbal rules, requests, and directives. They are beginning to keep verbal rules in mind and use them to guide their behaviour. Gains in rule and language use continue to grow and impact learning.
At the age of three, the child is no longer impulsively responding to stimuli in a rigid stereotyped way but rather acting deliberately and flexibly in light of a conscious plan. At three, most children can organize themselves to complete tasks that involve following two rules (e.g., “If it’s red, put it here, but if it’s blue, put it there.”), thus showing that they can direct and redirect their attention to make deliberate choices (mental flexibility), maintain focus in the face of distractions (inhibitory control), and keep rules in mind as they figure things out (working memory). While we can see clear evidence that these capacities are developing in three-year-olds, they remain relatively limited.
Between the ages of three and five, children demonstrate significant gain in performance on tasks involving inhibition and working memory. They are beginning to reflect on their own actions. Cognitive flexibility, goal-directed behaviour, and planning gains are noted. They are developing complex sets of rules to guide and regulate their behaviour. They begin to think about the intention or the act of doing rather than simply responding to the environment.
The five-year-old mind, by contrast, is remarkably complex. Preschoolers can verbalize their knowledge of what is the right thing to do but often are not able to actually follow through on it. The need for immediate gratification overrides planning and reasoning capabilities. Furthermore, their ability to successfully implement strategies to limit impulsive responses are not yet developed, though they are emerging. Older preschoolers are capable of conscious problem-solving that involves the ability to shift their attention from one rule to another that is incompatible with the first, and then back again (e.g., “If it’s the colour game, put the red square here, but if it’s the shape game, put the red square there.”) They also have the capacity to inhibit responses that are inappropriate even if highly desired (e.g., “I want to eat the candy right now, but I’ll wait because I will get more candy later if I do.”) or habitual (e.g., “I’ve been sorting by colour for five minutes, but now I need to shift to the shape rule.”) and to execute multistep, deliberate plans (e.g., “To stack these balls in the right order with just three moves, I need to start here, do this next, and then do that.”) A more familiar demonstration of this remarkable development can be seen in the growing proficiency with which young children play games such as Simon says and red light ⁄green light. At age five, these skills are just emerging and still require considerable practice. They are also heavily dependent on the situation and a child’s experience with it, and there are large individual differences in children’s capacity to deploy these evolving skills.
By the age of seven, some of the capabilities and brain circuits underlying executive function skills are remarkably similar to those found in adults.
By the age of fifteen, working memory, inhibitory control, and the ability to sustain and appropriately shift attention are close to adult levels and remain relatively stable, with some small increases noted into adulthood. Though teens function at or near adult levels, their self-monitoring and self-reflective abilities are not fully mature. Furthermore, when placed in highly complex situations or a situation in which they are required to integrate numerous pieces of information to make an informed decision, teens will show shortcomings. They tend to base decisions on the advantages of a given situation while underplaying the disadvantages.
Once these foundational capacities for directing attention, keeping rules in mind, controlling impulses, and enacting plans are in place, the subsequent developmental tasks of refining them and learning to deploy them more efficiently can proceed into the adolescent and early adult years as tasks grow increasingly complicated and challenging. Developmental studies also support the hypothesis that executive functions become increasingly differentiated from other cognitive functions with development as the functional specialization of neural systems progresses throughout childhood and young adulthood. Executive functions in younger children tend to be less differentiated from other cognitive abilities because of the substantial development of frontal lobe structure and function that occurs throughout childhood and adolescence and into early adulthood.
Because of the long maturation process of executive function skills, children are acutely sensitive to early experiences that can either hinder or boost their abilities. Stress, for instance, can be so damaging to a young child’s executive functions that it can lead to a misdiagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. On the other hand, enhancing experiences, such as a positive parent-child relationship, can protect children against the negative effect of stressful circumstances, such as living in poor economic conditions; consequently, they can improve executive functioning. Responsive parents who use gentle rather than harsh discipline and who are supportive of their child’s autonomy also tend to raise children with better executive function skills.
Executive function in schools
Children who arrive at school with well-practiced executive function skills may find it easier to sit still, pay attention, remember and follow rules, and flexibly adopt new perspectives; they may also learn more easily. Evidence shows that strong executive function skills serve as a protective factor helping children in extreme poverty overcome the risk of poor academic achievement.
The role of EF in school readiness and success
From an educational perspective, there is a need to prioritise EF due to the role of executive function skills in school readiness and academic success, as well as social interaction. When children begin formal schooling, they rely on the EF system to meet novel academic and social challenges:
- Successful learning often requires children to complete tasks while retaining verbal instructions and selectively ignoring distractions. This means that core components of EF are required for various learning activities that take place in the classroom. Working memory, for example, allows a child to follow verbal instructions and retain information, and is also an essential building block in the acquisition of early literacy skills and successful reading comprehension.
- There has been a recent focus on the relation between EF proficiency and measures of school readiness and academic achievement. Research shows that EF measures, such as working memory and inhibitory control, can be a better predictor of later academic achievement in numeracy and literacy than measures of intelligence. Good EF skills in the preschool years may therefore allow for a smooth transition into formal schooling, with EF appearing to be the main predictor of both academic and socio-emotional school readiness.
Executive function and school
A range of factors influences the development of executive functions. For a young child at the primary school stage, this can include biologically determined neurodevelopmental trajectories, home and family factors, classroom environments, and teacher behaviour. Children who arrive at school with well-practised executive function skills may find it easier to sit still, pay attention, remember and follow rules, and flexibly adopt new perspectives. They may learn more easily and, as a consequence, feel more optimistic about school and get along better with teachers and peers. Research shows that by targeting executive skills, teachers can help children improve their academic outcomes. Evidence shows that strong executive skills serve as a protective factor helping children in extreme poverty overcome the risk of poor academic achievement.
Depending on the country, children typically enter formal schooling between the ages of three and seven. From the development of executive functions, we know that this is also a period of rapid EF development, and it means that these functions are also particularly malleable in these years. Thus, school-related factors can influence developmental trajectories at this crucial stage of executive function skill development. Structured classroom environments with consistent rules and scheduling, for example, can facilitate executive function development, allowing children with developmental delays the opportunity to target the same milestones as their peers.
In school, children use their “cool” executive functions to direct their attention and their behaviour selectively and flexibly, and difficulties in these “cool” executive functions can adversely impact learning. Similarly, difficulties in “hot” executive functions may appear as difficulties in emotional regulation and have adverse effects on the child and his or her peers in the classroom. In early educational settings like kindergarten, many teachers report that the ability to sit still, follow rules, and pay attention are even more important for classroom success than literacy and numeracy.
It is very important for us to know that children’s EF development can also be influenced by pedagogical practices and teacher behaviour. Autonomy-supportive teaching styles that allow children to actively pursue intrinsic goals, for example, can encourage EF skill development. This can result in increased motivation and improved EF skills in children. Teacher-child relations can also influence EF skill development. Longitudinal research has found that the development of working memory is best fostered through positive teacher-child interactions free from conflict. And, conversely, recent research suggests that teachers who mislabel young children’s executive dysfunction as behavioural problems or “bad behaviour” may unintentionally create negative learning experiences for these children.
Helping children to improve executive functions
One way to help young children practice executive function is by reducing the demands placed on their executive functions so that the task is challenging but not too challenging. Training new skills always in the same context (e.g., in the classroom) is not so easily generalized to other contexts. Variable training, where children are continually presented with novel situations in which to practice a new skill, leads to better long-term performance than constant or blocked training with the same materials.
Helping children improve “hot” and “cool” executive functioning skills
It can be helpful if teachers/educators develop strategies ahead of time. Roleplay can help children prepare for stressful situations. Practising what to do or say might make it easier for them to make good decisions .
Indeed, both “hot” and “cool” executive functioning skills can be improved through practice. One way to help young children practice executive functions is by reducing the demands placed on their executive functions so that the task is challenging but not too challenging.This can be as simple as giving one direction at a time or removing “hot,” desirable distractions so that they don’t have to work so hard to stay focused.
Parents can give children chances to exercise and grow their executive functioning skills in situations that children can manage. This allows them to practice their skills successfully.
Since a child’s executive functioning skills become better through practice, the challenge can be regularly increased. In this way, parents can help children acquire deliberate self-regulation skills. These “hot” and “cool” skills will help them solve a wide range of problems, from doing well in school to making smart choices as a teenager.
How to most effectively improve executive functions
Diamond and Ling have stated that activities will most successfully improve executive functions if they include the following elements:
- They will tax executive functions, challenging children in new and different ways. Real-world activities train diverse executive function skills in diverse situations. Training new skills always in the same context (e.g., in the classroom) is not so easily generalized to other contexts. Variable training, where children are continually presented with novel situations in which to practice a new skill, leads to better long-term performance than constant or blocked training with the same materials (e.g., as in computer games). School programs that embed training in, and challenges to, executive skills in diverse activities, such as reading, math, and play, capitalize on this principle.
- They will be personally meaningful and relevant, inspiring on the part of the participants a deep commitment and emotional investment to the activity and perhaps also to one another. Whether participants are emotionally invested in an activity that requires executive functions may be the key to whether that activity improves these functions. Emotional investment matters because if children are deeply committed to an activity and doing something they enjoy, work feels like play. If that activity happens to train and challenge executive functions, then sizeable improvements in these functions should be seen. Letting children have a say in how an activity is organized or conducted increases their commitment to it. When children have a say, they experience more ownership of the activity. Having input (even about something as trivial as the order in which things are done) has been consistently shown to produce more engagement in the activity and more improvement, even when participants were instructed to do exactly what they would have chosen to do anyway. It is also empowering for them to feel that their opinion and ideas count.
- They will have a mentor or guide who firmly believes in the efficacy of the activity and is supportive (i.e., sincerely cares about and believes steadfastly in the individual participants). A deeply caring relationship between the teacher or trainer and the children produces the best outcomes. After reviewing copious amounts of data from all over the world Melhuis et al. (2015) concluded that what matters most for early childhood education outcomes is not the adult to child ratio, class size, instructional style, or quality of materials. What matters most is the adult-child relationship. It is relationships, not programs, that change children. A great program simply creates the environment for healthy relationships to form between adults and children. Young people thrive when adults care about them, and when they also have a sense of belonging to a caring community. Humans are fundamentally social. We need to feel liked and accepted. We need to feel we’re not alone. Feeling socially excluded is not only painful subjectively, it also activates the same brain network used for self-control and reasoning. Even anticipating being alone in the future has shown to impair logical reasoning (a higher-order executive function), although not simple memorization (which does not need executive function).
- They will provide joy, reduce feelings of stress and loneliness, and inspire self-confidence and pride. Many studies show that learning environments, classrooms, and programs that reduce stress will be more effective in improving executive functions. It is an important principle that one negative act, such as humiliating someone, can override the benefit of scores of positive ones. Already in the late nineteenth century the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was adamant that one should never embarrass a child. Teachers and mentors need to create an environment where children in the classroom feel safe to take risks and try new things; in this way, they will feel it is okay to make mistakes. Treating errors and failed attempts as learning opportunities or simply as a natural occurrence when you venture beyond what you are already confident of has been demonstrated to be important for improving diverse skills, including executive functions. Neurological research indicates that even mild stress (and the stress hormone cortisol) affects the prefrontal cortex (which is very sensitive to the increase of cortisol). The prefrontal cortex is the most important brain structure for executive functions. Mild stress increases the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine (neurotransmitters) in the prefrontal cortex, and these areas do not function properly as a result. Higher levels of dopamine during stressful periods correlate with a degree of executive function impairment.
According to Diamond and Ling, real-world activities are most likely to have these four elements. Good examples are music, communal dance forms, sports, and other physical activities, as well as everyday activities such as caring for an animal.
Diamond and Ling have very concretely described why sports may enhance executive functions:
Most sports place demands on each of the EFs. Participants need to remember complex movement sequences, mentally work with lots of information, processing in real-time cues such as people’s positions and where they will likely go next (for ball sports, cues about the ball’s location and trajectory), mentally compare the present situation with past ones, and use that to predict what is likely to happen next or down the line (i.e., they must use WM (Working Memory). Participants need to inhibit attending to distractions and keep their attention focused; they must inhibit a planned action when that is suddenly no longer a good idea and inhibit what might be their first inclination, such as the temptation to try to score oneself rather than passing (i.e., they must use inhibitory control). And, they must use cognitive flexibility: The situation is constantly changing. Participants must quickly and accurately evaluate and respond to those changes, flexibly switching plans in real time, adjusting to the unexpected, adapting to complex and rapidly changing conditions. The situation they are faced with at any moment is often different from anything they have faced before. They can never know for sure what someone else will do; at best they can only predict. Some of this can become automatized and no longer require top-down control, but (a) that is less true for people relatively new to a sport and (b) typically the difficulty of what one is facing keeps increasing. As other players or opponents get better at the sport, the inherent difficulty of what one is faced with increases, providing a constant challenge.