Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D, director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), offers a description of executive functions that reflects the views of many experts: “Executive functioning involves activating, orchestrating, monitoring, evaluating, and adapting different strategies to accomplish different tasks…. It requires the ability to analyze situations, plan and take action, focus and maintain attention, and adjust actions as needed to get the job done.”
Executive functions are like being an air traffic controller who has to work with information, focus on thinking, filter distractions and switch gears in order to manage the arrival and departures of multiple planes on multiple runways at an international airport. Children are not born with executive function but are born with the ability to develop this skill. Executive functions impact the following areas:
- School Achievement by helping students remember and follow multi-step instructions, avoid distractions and adjust when new information is presented and problem solve.
- Behavior by developing leadership, working on a team, decision-making, and empathy for others.
- Good Health by helping students make positive choices about peer pressure, use of drugs, exercise and even food choices.
- Work by increasing potential for economic success due to better organizational skills and ability to solve problems.
Executive function skills begin to develop shortly after birth and exhibit dramatic growth during the ages of 3-5 years. Executive functioning requires working memory, mental flexibility and self-control coupled with self-regulation.
How does a parent or teacher begin to develop this complex group of skills? Young children begin by developing strong relationships at home and then school. It is the job of parent and teacher to protect young children from chaos, violence and environmental stressors so that the brain is available to develop. Parents and teachers should also foster social connections for the young child. The young child should be challenged but not frustrated by complex skills.
A child’s executive functioning skills continue to develop throughout early adulthood. The development of executive functions begins with children building positive relationships with adults in their various environments. It is never too soon to begin working on these skills.
For more information on Executive Functioning in young children:
Executive Function in the Classroom by Christopher Kaufman
Rebecca Blanton has been an educator for 32 years and served as the Principal of Coralwood School, the inclusion preschool in DeKalb County, Georgia from 2004 to 2012.