Developing Executive Function

The development of the prefrontal cortex, located in the front part of our brains, is critical for developing the emotional and cognitive capacity required for self-regulation, what we call Executive Function; the ability to plan, concentrate, solve problems, and control our behaviors.

This is also the part of our brains most affected by stresses such as a lack of safety and security in early childhood, social/emotional neglect or abuse, or poor connections to family and community support. The lack of caring and attentive parents also negatively impacts our executive functions, so developing these abilities is about smart parenting.

Executive function as defined by Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child is a combination of working memory (aka, those 700 neural connections per second), selective and focused attention on important tasks (or self-control), and mental flexibility, being able to revise a course of action based on changes in the environment.

As our executive function develops, we are better able to control distractions and focus on the task at hand, which means that we learn how to plan ahead, solve problems, organize information around complex tasks, use critical thinking, make good decisions and manage life stresses more productively. This also means that we’re able to get along in a group and function as part of a team, essential skills for success at school and at work.

Executive function skills are essential for being able to bounce back, i.e., be resilient. These skills include being able to initiate and strategize diverse types of projects; plan and organize materials and activities to complete projects; stay on task even when obstacles arise, controlling frustrations; monitor and revise work as needed. This means having the ability to make, decisions, and then evaluate the effectiveness of those decisions to plan future activities. It requires being able to think before you act, and work through feelings of fear or frustration to reach a desired goal in a timely manner.

When executive function is compromised, we have a hard time seeing the consequences of our behavior, and being flexible enough to review our plans and adapt to changing conditions. This capability can be compromised from birth, such as when infants are born to parents addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. A sterile, unloving environment such as in some orphanages will also damage a child’s emotional self-control and critical thinking abilities. This is why a loving, nurturing environment is so essential for all children.

Gaining these skills doesn’t happen by osmosis. They must be learned, and learning depends upon a foundation of developmentally appropriate experiences where children can succeed, but also where they fail and learn how to deal with failure by trying again and again.

As children grow and experience success at each stage, their confidence grows, and they willingly take risks to develop new skills; engendering confidence and positive self-esteem. This creates a cycle of learning; success with simple tasks builds skills and confidence to try more complex tasks and results in attempts to solve problems in different ways, prompting creativity.

The effective development of executive function depends upon the strength of early emotional bonds. This requires parents and ‘significant others’ to be a positive presence that children can trust, and to plan for opportunities where they can practice new skills, and become independent and confident. It also means protecting them from intensely chaotic and adverse situations where possible.

Infants and children do not learn these concepts and strategies from people who abuse them. They withdraw, and essentially shut down. Repeated neglect and negative experiences do, in fact, slow down development; leading to developmental delays that are difficult, and perhaps impossible, to overcome in later years. Deficits in self-discipline, academic growth, and interpersonal relationships are common; and often continue to negatively impact school and job prospects throughout life.

Critical factors in the development of a superior Executive Function include:

Parent and family support. Smart, effective parenting is essential – making strong, positive connections with family and community members. Children who feel valued and supported, and have good cognitive functioning, are more likely to bounce back from adverse experiences, divorce, car accidents, death of a loved one, or other unanticipated events. Parents and significant others play a part in putting such events into a broader context, and being able to take a long-term view. Children also develop values and moral character by being part of a larger group. The group supports us, and we also become a support to others, strengthening ourselves as well as our community.

Becoming competent physically, emotionally and intellectually happens when parents and communities nurture positive self-esteem, poise and confidence. As children become more optimistic, and believe they can and will succeed, they try harder and sometimes, simply trying wins the battle. Otherwise, they may back away from problems because they think they cannot succeed and if they don’t try, they automatically fail.

Positive Self Esteem. This is a belief in oneself, which is having a sense of power and control that is based on building new skills. It’s having the confidence and the willingness to try again, and again, that come from the belief that ‘I CAN do it’ rather than ‘Maybe I can do it.’

Peer and Community Connections. Resilience is built through learning how to connect with others, making friends at school and at work, focusing on positive things rather than negative events, making lemonade out of lemons. We all want and need to belong to a family, a cultural community, a group of friends, a larger geographical community; and ultimately to a school, sports groups, clubs, and even a global ?community? that develops online.

Belonging builds a sense of personal responsibility, since all groups require some type of commitment; dues, attending meetings, participating in events, or helping out with activities.

Education Factors. Resilience is also produced by having more tools at our disposal and these tools come through both formal and informal education. Schools should be are safe places for kids to try new things, fail, and try again.

As kids learn how to deal with school rules, they also learn how to deal with ‘life rules’, about how to get along with others, relate to different personalities and ideas, and handle conflict, all critical life skills. Knowing that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, and having a ‘bag of tools’, strategies, to draw from makes us more likely to try, and to overcome obstacles.

Resources. Having resources at our disposal makes a huge difference in our ability to manage and resolve difficulties. Resources include money, which helps, but by itself doesn’t solve everything, but more importantly, knowledge (and knowing where to find more answers), and people (family, friends, community).

We learn the importance of giving to others, as well as accepting help from others. We know that children and adults who have at least one significant person who supports them, whether family or friend, are much more resilient in successfully overcoming problems; and programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters are highly effective.

Things you can do to encourage RESILIENCE are:

Make sure you practice caring and consistent parenting that emphasizes your children’s value and their competence.

Let your children know that you have confidence in their ability to manage many situations, including adversity. When they fail, help them get up and try again.

Focus on positive efforts and the process for solving a problem. Children have amazing reasoning abilities. 

Develop positive, strong family ties where everyone feels supported and honored, knowing that they are invaluable contributors to your family team.

Look for opportunities to have fun, and take on the challenge of learning new skills so kids know they CAN do it.

Make a point of developing relationships with neighbors and other children and adults in your community, perhaps especially those that may have different customs or languages, or be different in other ways.

Teach them to have strong values and beliefs that they can focus on when in trouble, through church relationships and activities, and other community groups.

Help them solve problems that might seem unsolvable, step by step; including with younger siblings, so they become givers and not just takers.

Be straightforward and honest when they’re afraid, some things are scary but not hurtful, while other situations could be damaging.

Help them learn the basics of following simple rules, i.e., raising their hand before speaking in school, not running into the street, finishing their chores, and doing their homework.

Learn to laugh at yourself, and they will learn to accept their own shortcomings and still work toward higher skills.