Executive function development is essential for success in college and career. These executive function skills consist of working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control—all necessary components for higher education and the workplace. The most effective time for development of these skills is in early childhood, but they may be fostered well into the teen years.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, early childhood experiences “affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” In the early years, there is a process of neural connection proliferation that is necessary for the development of three areas of the brain: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. These three areas are responsible for emotional behavior and regulation, short term memory, and self-control.
Following the process of proliferation, the brain prunes neural pathways. In other words, learned behaviors are defined. It is crucial, then, that early childhood experiences bolster executive function. Building executive function requires a three-pronged approach. This may be achieved through implementing a curriculum that ensures children gain access to education and creative activities delivered by an adult role-model who displays high executive function.
Adult role-modeling plays a large role in learned behaviors. The Center on the Developing Child states that “even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.” Care-givers and teachers may not have control over a child’s family environment, but they can play their part in the healthy development of children’s executive function by displaying their own executive function skills.
Activities that encourage creative play are another way in which children learn executive function skills. Card games, storytelling, and songs that repeat and add on exercise working memory; movement challenges, such as yoga or freeze dance, practice self-control; children can make their own play props or engage in matching card games to foster cognitive flexibility.
The Center on the Developing Child says helping provide “the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities.” It is never too soon to start helping children develop the executive function foundation they need to prepare for success in life.