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Imagine this scenario – it’s the end of the day and you are picking your child up from preschool. There is excitement in the block area as a massive tower comes crashing down, a teacher telling a story with puppets on the rug, and a child having a melt down at the snack table. You tell your child that it is time to go and direct them to go to their cubby and get their coat and backpack. You briefly check in with a teacher about the day’s activities and then head to the cubby area to find your child engaged in a game with a friend. The ability for your child to remember why they went to the cubby area and avoid distraction requires the use of executive functioning skills, a term used by neuroscientists. While this sounds like a highly technical term, we all use executive function skills constantly in our daily lives, and it is much easier to support your child in developing these skills than you might imagine.
One way to think about executive function is as if your brain was a symphony. Executive function would be the conductor. A conductor’s job is to unify performers, set the tempo, and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble. This is much like the way that our brains take in, stores, and makes use of multiple sources of information. It also works to control our emotions and perform a myriad of other tasks. Executive function helps all the areas of the brain work fluidly together – as a conductor does the players of the symphony.
There are three key components to executive function – working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility. These three key skills help us to keep information in mind, control our impulses, and be flexible in the face of change, all of which are critical building blocks in the development of both cognitive and social skills in young children. In fact, studies have demonstrated that executive functions are more predictive of later academic achievement than IQ tests. Executive function and self-regulation are key ingredients in a child’s lifetime performance. Think about it, the ability to work with others, with distraction, and to multitask, are all skills required of most adults in the workforce.
I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of adults struggle on occasion with executive functioning. Be honest, do you always exercise self-control, resist temptation, and avoid acting on impulse? Do you always think before you speak or act? These are all behaviors that fall under the category of executive function. Even if you have very strong executive function skills it’s not always easy. The regions of the brain responsible for self-control, for instance, are immature at birth and are not fully developed until the end of adolescence, which helps to understand why developing self-control is such a long, slow process. The next time you are feeling exasperated by your toddlers inability to share during a playdate, just think, if it is challenging for you, as an adult with a fully developed brain, to resist the urge to hit send on a text message to your sister that you know will probably hurt her feelings, how hard it must be for your toddler.
We are not born with executive function skills, we develop them over time through our interactions with others and our environments. This process begins in infancy and continues into early adulthood. Philip A. Fisher Ph. D explained, “It’s just like going to the gym. The more you practice in these areas the stronger the capacity is likely to become because you’re helping to strengthen those neural connections.”
In the Infant and toddler years you will begin to see the roots of executive function. This is a prime time to begin to work on strengthening these developing capacities. Children build these skills when they are engaged in meaningful social interactions, activities that draw on self-regulatory skills at increasingly demanding levels, and enjoyable experiences that promote creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
The exhibits here at the Museum are all intentionally designed to engage children and adults in exactly these types of activities. Ramps and Rollers is a particularly good area to support developing executive functioning. For infants and toddlers, hiding games are the perfect place to start. Hide a toy under a blanket. Once the child finds it quickly, hide it again in another location and encourage them to find it again. Or you can encourage them to hide themselves in one of our Book Nooks or Young Explorers areas at DCM. Little ones love to listen to your searching loudly for them while they mentally track your location. Finally, conversations, at all ages are key. Simply talking to infants and toddlers is an excellent way to build attention, working memory, and self-control. For older children, asking them to reflect on or recall their experiences is also beneficial in this area.