Executive function, life’s most important skill

file0001389399799Consider this all too familiar scenario: you are running really late and you kindly ask your child to pick up his toys because it is time to leave the house/welcome guests/sit down for dinner. He smiles in agreement. Five minutes later and he’s still playing, without a single toy in its proper place.

But, before you blow your lid, stop for a moment and give your kid the benefit of the doubt. Is it possible that, in spite of wanting to do his chore, he doesn’t know where to begin, or how to stop playing and start putting the toys away, or simply the desire to continue playing is too strong to resist?

Because getting started on a job, maintaining focus and effort levels, switching between tasks (playing vs. putting away the toys) and filtering distractions are all skills that file under one rather large umbrella called executive functions. And while all executive functions are associated with one particular area of the brain, the frontal lobe (not to get too sci here, but definitely worth mentioning: primarily prefrontal cortex, along with anterior cingulate, parietal cortex and hippocampus), they do not grow at the same time nor at the same pace. Therefore, different abilities that classify under executive functions category develop at different ages, and some never entirely mature, depending on the person’s circumstances. Take me, for instance: I believe I am quite good at flexible thinking and impulse control, but the actual time required for a certain job to be finished somehow always eludes me.

What exactly is executive function?

Graphic of 8 Key Executive FunctionsExecutive functions are skills we need to get any job done. They help us focus, remember and plan.

There are three dimensions of executive skills that are most often emphasized: Working Memory, Inhibitory (Impulse) Control and Mental (Cognitive) Flexibility. It should be kept in mind that these three functions are not independent but are simultaneously activated to produce effective decisions that will ultimately lead towards reaching a goal.

Working memory is in charge of retaining and use of information, Inhibitory control helps us filter our thoughts and master our impulses, while Mental flexibility enables us to adapt our behaviour and line of thinking to the circumstances we find ourselves in. In other words, these skills allow us to concentrate, remember instructions, hold and manipulate data in our heads, make involved plans, control our behaviour and feelings, and resist distractions and temptations.

Why are these skills important?

Executive skills are vital for both learning and social interactions.

They provide the necessary conditions for children to gain knowledge and actively engage in school activities. They present a biological foundation for academic performance.

It is difficult to picture a child successfully mastering content taught at school if she has problems filtering distractions, focusing or sitting still.

But, more importantly, executive functions are crucial for social, emotional and moral development.

Ultimately, it is the complexity of social interactions and our need to master them, rather than any academic aspirations, that led to growth of the prefrontal cortex in humans, and to evolution of our rather sophisticated executive skills.

And, though we are not born with them, we are given the potential to develop these skills, through practice and positive experience, which is why it is vital for parents and care-givers to recognise their role in nurturing executive functions in children.

How can we help our children develop executive skills?

While specific exercises you can do with your child require a separate blog post, let me just stress the most important ways in which you can get involved in helping your kid develop these skills.

The most important factors for laying down proper foundations that will enable your child to master these crucial skills are the environment in which she lives, plays and learns; relationships she has with peers and grown-ups and opportunities she’s got to engage in different stimulating and beneficial activities.

Your child needs your support and involvement, he needs to feel safe and free to explore and experiment, he needs to interact with other people and be able to engage in open-end play with other children, he needs you to guide him and model the skills, he also needs a lot of physical exercise for proper brain development, as well as peaceful and stable environment in which to express himself and grow.

What else?

In the next post I will list different activities that enable your child to learn and practice different executive skills, so stay tuned.



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