Executive functions (collectively referred to as executive function and cognitive control) are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behaviour: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviours that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Higher order executive functions require the simultaneous use of multiple basic executive functions and include planning and fluid intelligence (i.e., reasoning and problem solving).
Executive function skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.
When children have opportunities to develop executive function skills, individuals, and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behaviour and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families.
The Little Executive is one such organization that help children develope their executive functioning skills, more information can be found on their website.
Executive function skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.
• Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
• Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
• Self-control enables us to set priorities and resists impulsive actions or responses.
Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. If children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions in their environments—or (worse) if those influences are sources of toxic stress—their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired. Adverse environments resulting from neglect, abuse, and violence may expose children to toxic stress, which disrupts brain architecture and impairs the development of executive function.
Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings, they experience regularly is one of the society’s most important responsibilities. Growth-promoting environments provide children with “scaffolding” that helps them practice necessary skills before they must perform them alone.
Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behaviour, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their actions with decreasing adult supervision.
Inhibitory control and working memory act as basic executive functions that make it possible for more complex executive functions like problem-solving to develop. Inhibitory control and working memory are among the earliest executive functions to appear, with initial signs observed in infants, 7 to 12-months old. Then in the preschool years, children display a spurt in performance on tasks of inhibition and working memory, usually between the ages of 3 to 5 years. Also during this time, cognitive flexibility, goal-directed behaviour, and planning begin to develop. Nevertheless, preschool children do not have fully mature executive functions and continue to make errors related to these emerging abilities – often not due to the absence of the abilities, but rather because they lack the awareness to know when and how to use particular strategies in particular contexts.