Executive function

Executive function
Development of cognitive control is a key part of a child’s development. Early childhood is an important period for the construction of neural circuits and networks responsible for executive function (EF).
Author/s:
Associate Professor, Mahidol University, Thailand
Theme/s:

Early childhood development

This report arises from Science of Learning Fellowships funded by the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) in partnership with the International Bureau of Education (IBE) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The IBRO/IBE-UNESCO Science of Learning Fellowship aims to support and translate key neuroscience research on learning and the brain to educators, policy makers, and governments.

Executive summary

  • This brief emphasizes the importance of executive function (EF) in early childhood care and education.
  • In young children, executive function predicts school readiness and academic outcomes at the school age. These skills are emerging during preschool years. Therefore, it is important for educators to understand the development of EF in young children and know how to train them in the classroom setting.
  • Preschool curriculum that focuses on supporting children’s EF has potential benefit for improvement of a child’s capacity to learn at school and for better schooling outcomes at school age.

Introduction

Development of cognitive control is a key part of a child’s development. Early childhood is an important period for the construction of neural circuits and networks responsible for executive function (EF) (Diamond, 2002; Moriguchi & Hiraki, 2011; Rueda, Rothbart, McCandliss, Saccomanno, & Posner, 2005). In young children, EF is positively correlated with later academic outcomes and life success, and is a stronger predictor of these outcomes than IQ or socioeconomic status (Blair & Razza, 2007).

EF emerges during the preschool years and gradually improves from school age through adolescence but does not reach the peak of maturity until adulthood (Jacques & Marcovitch, 2010). Importantly, EF skills in young children are a foundation for higher-order thinking skills, or so-called “metacognition,” that are acquired during school age. Metacognition refers to the higher cognitive processes such as knowing how to memorize things, planning, monitoring, and assessing one’s own performance to improve learning (Borkowski & Burke, 1996). When young children engage in learning, they need EF and metacognition to learn new skills. EF and metacognition play central roles in processes of self-regulated learning such as the ability to stop an action when necessary, to stay focused despite distractions, to detect and correct errors when something goes wrong, and to act in a goal-directed manner (Roebers, 2017). Using EF is effortful and it is difficult for young children to be able to regulate their own thoughts, actions, and attention without proper support from adults.

What is executive function?

Executive function is a set of higher mental processes that supervise the complex thoughts for managing oneself and one’s resources, and for guiding goal-directed behaviors (Anderson, 2002; Delis, Kramer, & Kaplan, 2001; Diamond, 2013; Espy, 2004; Miller & Cohen, 2001). In a challenging situation, EF skills are more important than the passive retention of information (Reynolds & Horton, 2006). EF enables an individual to adapt and thrive in complex psychosocial environments, when a desirable goal cannot be fulfilled by automatic behavior (Diamond, 2013; Gioia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 2000).

EF is closely related to the term “cognitive control.” Posner and Snyder in 1975 proposed that cognitive control refers to the processes that guide those behaviors that allow one to adapt from situation to situation, according to the goals of the individual (Posner & Snyder, 1975).  EF determines an individual’s efficiency in acquiring knowledge and how well to solve complex problems in a challenge situation (Naglieri & Goldstein, 2013). Some components of EF that are developing in the preschooler include:

  • Working memory, which is the capacity to hold information in mind to complete a task. Children need working memory when they are performing multistep activities, implementing a sequence of actions, or following complex instructions. Children who have poor working memory may have trouble remembering things even for a few minutes, or forget what they are doing as they work.
  • Inhibition, which refers to the ability to stop inappropriate behavior at the appropriate time, the ability to think before acting, or to resist acting on an impulse. Inhibitory control is an essential contributor to cognition, social and emotional, and adaptive functions, as well as to academic achievement (St Clair-Thompson & Gathercole, 2006). Children who have poor inhibition will easily get out of control, behave more impulsively, and become easily distracted while working.
  • Cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to make transitions from one situation to another as needed, the ability to solve problems with flexibility, to switch attention and change focus, and to shift from one mindset to another. Children with poor cognitive flexibility will become easily upset when entering a new situation and find it more difficult to adjust to a new environment.

These EF skills help young children develop better control of their thoughts, actions, and emotions. For example, children need to inhibit and switch attention (shift away) from the source of troubled feelings in order to calm down and control their emotions. Therefore, children with difficulty in inhibiting and shifting attention might also have difficulty in emotional control as well.

Importantly, EF in preschoolers is a foundation for the emergence of metacognition at school age (Roebers, Cimeli, Röthlisberger, & Neuenschwander, 2012). Children who have problems with EF might also have metacognition problems such as difficulty in beginning tasks and difficulty with performing an activity that has several steps. The integration between EF and metacognitive skills in preschoolers underlies the development of cognitive processes of self-regulation and self-regulated learning at the elementary school level (Roebers, 2017). By the time children enter early elementary years, they have acquired the basic metacognition skills; then, EF facilitates further improvements of the advance metacognition skills for school success such as self-monitoring, task-monitoring, and task completion (Roebers & Spiess, 2017).

Prefrontal cortex and executive function

The frontal lobe, and particularly the prefrontal cortex (or PFC) of the frontal lobe, plays a role in EF development as well as EF dysfunction in several neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders (Levine & Craik, 2012). However, the PFC does not function alone. It has extensive reciprocal connections with several regions of cortical and subcortical areas. These connections are further integrated with the emotional and motivational systems, which allows complex behaviors to be executed (Otero & Barker, 2014; Stuss & Alexander, 2007).

PFC shows a protracted brain development which correlates with development of EF skills in childhood and adolescence (Diamond, 2000; Gogtay et al., 2004; C.Wendelken, Baym, Gazzaley, & Bunge, 2011). Moreover, neuroimaging studies have shown that the neural networks within several areas of the PFC are strongly activated while performing EF tasks both in children and adults (Moriguchi & Hiraki, 2013; Carter Wendelken, Munakata, Baym, Souza, & Bunge, 2012). Patients with lesions in the PFC have shown a variety of EF deficits including distractibility, impulsivity, disinhibition, perseveration, lack of initiation, and social irresponsibility (Chudasama & Robbins, 2006; Fuster, 2008). Finally, children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, autism, and dyslexia, typically show EF dysfunction together with specific structural and functional abnormalities in the PFC (Anderson, Jacobs, & Anderson, 2008).

All children are acquiring EF every day and EF skills are not fully developed until early adulthood. The preschool years represent a window of opportunity to address cognitive executive control and emotional regulation. During this period, the interaction between the various aspects of child development such as motor, sensory, language, and social-emotional skills, are all required to support the development of executive function and self-regulation (Luria, 1966a; Luria, 1966b).

Impact of early childhood care and education on EF development

Early childhood education focused on executive function is essential, particularly for children at high risk of atypical development. For example, children with a range of developmental disorders (e.g., ADHD, autism, and learning disorders) often show behavioral problems in the area of EF deficit. Moreover, behavioral problems representing signs of executive dysfunction in young children sometimes present themselves before they begin school, which later can affect school outcomes. Therefore, parents and teachers play crucial roles in scaffolding young children and encouraging a child to control their own impulses and behaviors. Especially for young children who struggle with executive dysfunction, it is important that adults support a child by helping to strengthen their executive function skills.

The problematic aspect of this topic is that the preschool curriculum rarely focuses on executive function and self-regulation, although the ability of young children to control their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions is more critical for schooling outcomes than their IQ or entry-level reading or math skills (Blair, 2002; Blair & Raver, 2015). Most preschool curricula still emphasize teaching mainly reading, writing, and arithmetic rather than executive control and self-regulation skills. Research has shown that EF and emotional regulation skills can be trained by the teacher in a regular classroom setting or by a parent at home, with no cost and no need of expensive or specialized equipment (Diamond & Ling, 2016).

According to brain research findings, academic teaching is not the only type of training that early childhood education should provide. For example, literacy might not be the most important skill for preschool children when one considers the importance of oral language for communicating with others and for following the teacher’s instruction. Also, young children need more active learning and hands-on activities for enhancing and strengthening EF. Preschool teachers and parents play important roles in training young children for cognitive control and emotional regulation, especially when they support children in facing challenging situations.

Implications for early childhood education

Scientific understanding of children’s brain development can be implemented to guide teachers’ practice and so improve the quality of early childhood education. Research findings suggest that curricula designed to improve cognitive control and self-regulation skills, along with the teaching of early academic skills, may be most effective in helping children succeed in school. There are evidence-based practices that effectively implement these insights in a preschool setting to improve EF skills in young children (Diamond, 2012, 2014; Diamond & Lee, 2011; Diamond & Ling, 2016). Also, parents can apply these strategies in the home environment. It is important for teachers and parents to keep in mind that the prefrontal cortex is the most vulnerable brain region affected by stress. So, therefore, the learning approaches used to train a child’s EF should avoid triggering stress since this stress may have a negative impact on PFC function (Friedman-Krauss, Raver, Neuspiel, & Kinsel, 2014; Wagner et al., 2016).

Preschool curricula that focus on cognitive control and self-regulation can enhance children’s engagement in learning at school and establish long-term benefits for academic trajectories. Therefore, it is necessary to initiate an innovative approach to the global preschool curriculum that, along with early academic skills, promotes teachers’ practice and provides guidelines for enhancing executive function and self-regulation in young children.

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