Executive function skills predict children's success in school and life

Executive function skills predict children's success in school and life

Posted by Grace on Sep 05 2013

Research indicates that if you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions actually predict success better than IQ tests.

What are executive functions, exactly?

In the brain, the ability to hold onto and work with information, focus and filter distractions and switch tasks is much like the air traffic control system in a busy airport. Scientists refer to these as executive functions - a set of skills that rely on three main types of brain function: working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years. Executive function skills typically show dramatic growth between the ages of 3 to 5 and then grow more gradually through adult life.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has published working papers on the science of child development and how early childhood experiences can shape the development of executive function skills. From a personal standpoint, it's interesting that such an important topic is not yet part of our daily vernacular as parents, especially as there are things we could actively do for our kids to encourage the healthy development of these skills.

In this oft-cited article, Adele Diamond, an early pioneer in the research of executive function skills, lists six approaches that can help executive function development in children 4-12 years old:

  1. Computerized working memory training
  2. Hybrid of computer and non-computer games focused on reasoning and speed training
  3. Aerobic exercise and sports
  4. Mindfulness and martial arts (works better on kids 8 and above)
  5. Classroom curricula, including Tools of the Mind, a preschool and kindergarten curriculum based on Vygotsky, and Montessori programs
  6. Add-ons to classroom curricula, specifically PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) which trains teachers to build children's competencies in self-control, managing feelings and interpersonal problem-solving, and the CSRP (Chicago School Readiness Project) which takes a different approach by providing teachers with extensive behavior management training and suggestions for reducing their stress.

I certainly find that knowing what's going on in my daughter's brain is helpful as a framework to help manage through those periods of trying behavior!