Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears are like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive functioning, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary. Scientists refer to these capacities as executive function and self-regulation- a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Children aren’t born with these skills they are born with the potential to develop them. The full range of abilities continues to grow and mature through the teen years and into early adulthood. To ensure that children develop these capacities, it’s helpful to understand how the quality of the interactions and experiences that our communities provide for them either strengthens or undermines these emerging skills.
- When children have had opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills successfully, both individuals and society experience lifelong benefits.
- School Achievement
- Positive Behaviors
- Good Health
- Successful Work
Activities—Building these abilities in young children requires communities and caregivers to provide and support experiences that promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development broadly.
- The critical factors in developing a strong foundation for these essential skills are children’s relationships, the activities they have opportunities to engage in, and the places in which they live, learn, and play.
- Support their efforts
- Model the skills;
- Engage in activities in which they practice the skills
- Provide a consistent, reliable presence that young children can trust
- Guide them from complete dependence on adults to gradual independence
- Protect them from chaos, violence, and chronic adversity, because toxic stress caused by these environments disrupts the brain circuits required for executive functioning and triggers impulsive, “act-now-think-later” behavior.
- 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.
Science shows that there are opportunities throughout development to provide children, adolescents, and the adults who care for them with the relationships, environments, and skill-building activities that will enhance their executive function capacities. It’s just easier, less costly, and more effective to get them right from the start.