Executive functions are a set of cognitive skills that allow us to control our emotions and thoughts in the midst of an often-hectic world. A recent report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard identifies three primary components of executive function: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
Working memory is the ability to maintain and manipulate information for short periods of time, which is essential for executing planned sequences, whether that plan consists of dialing a phone number, carrying on a conversation, adding two numbers, or tying a shoe.
Inhibitory control is comprised of both top-down focus, or selective attention, and suppression of distractors or temptations. Selective attention is the ability to ‘tune in’ to a subset of the vast amount of sensory information that we experience in a constant stream. This is considered a top-down process because it’s directed by choice, while bottom-up distractors (external) or impulses (internal) are spontaneous. Adults depend on inhibitory control throughout daily life, for example, when driving a car with children in the backseat; children acquire it by learning social rules such as waiting to be called upon if they know an answer, or ignoring a sibling’s teasing.
Cognitive flexibility is called into play when a change in top-down strategy is warranted. This may be a procedural shift, such as realizing a math problem calls for multiplication rather than addition, or a situational strategy shift, such as knowing and following different behavioral guidelines inside school versus on the playground. Successful acquisition of this skill allows adults to adapt to different social conventions in different environments, and to adjust a work or task list based on an updated deadline.
Describing these cognitive skills independently obscures the reality that in most daily tasks, all are engaged simultaneously! However, research has shown that each of these skills is independent, and can be improved with training. We’ll share this research in future posts to explain why Kiko’s Thinking Time is such an important tool for developing children’s minds.
Over the years, researchers have investigated many different types of reasoning (e.g., fluid reasoning, analogical reasoning, relational reasoning, etc.), but a good general definition is the ability to integrate sets of information in order to solve novel problems. As you can guess, reasoning skills can be applied to almost any new challenge! Whenever we learn a new skill, we relate it to something we already know; when we come up against a new problem, we look for clues either from past knowledge or from the problem context to help us figure it out. Because schoolchildren are learning almost all of the time – whether it’s in school or out – they are constantly using their reasoning abilities.
In this video, Professor Silvia Bunge of the University of California at Berkeley describes reasoning as being a higher-level cognitive skill that relies on many lower-level cognitive skills, such as speed of mental processing, working memory, and cognitive control. In this characterization of reasoning, it is intricately intertwined with the executive function skills we want to develop with Kiko’s Thinking Time, which is why you’ll see reasoning games alongside other executive function skills in the app.
Early childhood is the prime opportunity for executive function development
Many studies have shown that aspects of executive function can be improved with targeted training throughout the lifespan, but the window between ages 3 and 6 is the period of most rapid development. Sandra Weintraub and a large team of collaborators affiliated with the National Institutes of Health tested people from ages 3 to 85 years old, and found a fourfold increase in executive function between the ages of 3 and 6. They found a further doubling between the ages of 6 and 24, after which scores gradually decreased.
However, executive function development is not guaranteed during preschool. Children acquire these skills by interacting with rich learning environments and responsive caregivers who help them practice these skills. Liliana Lengua, Elizabeth Honorado and Nicole Bush at the University of Washington assessed 80 preschoolers’ cognitive and emotional executive functions as well as their home environments. They found that differences in home environments and parental warmth, responsiveness, encouragement, and limit-setting accounted for differences in children’s social and cognitive control. This finding underscores the susceptibility – and opportunity – for children’s executive function development during the preschool years.
Executive functions are essential for school readiness
Eugene Lewit and Linda Baker of the Center for the Future of Children reported that most parents and teachers agree: verbal communication skills and a positive, curious attitude are very important components of school readiness. However, while parents think that learning letters and numbers before kindergarten is also important, kindergarten teachers are much more concerned about their students’ ability to follow directions, sensitivity to others’ feelings, and self-regulation so they do not disrupt the class. If a student is not able to do these things, it doesn’t matter whether they already know their numbers and letters or not – it will be very difficult to teach them anything! These skills that teachers emphasize fall under the category of executive functions, because they all require cognitive and emotional self-control.
Amanda Morris and a network of researchers from Oklahoma State University, Pittsburg State University and University of New Orleans corroborated the teachers’ beliefs in a study of students’ executive functions at the beginning and end of kindergarten. They found that kindergartners’ self-control at the beginning of the year was the strongest predictor of their reading and math skills at the end of the year. Also important to academic achievement were a child’s behavior and peer relations, which are known to be related to executive functions as well.
This raises important questions for parents of preschoolers about what will truly help their children succeed in school! http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/docs/05_02_Indicators.pdf?origin=publication_detail http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3806504/
Prior posts discussed research showing that children with better executive functions and reasoning skills were better-prepared for school behaviorally and academically. But what to do about children with lower executive function skills Excitingly, new research suggests that training on executive function and reasoning skills leads to academic improvements!
Andrea Goldin and a team of researchers at universities across Argentina provided computerized training on executive functions to first graders. During 7 hours over 10 weeks the children played three games that exercised their working memory, inhibitory control, and reasoning, and a control group played similar but less challenging games. Both groups performed equally well at post-test on the reasoning measure, but the trained group performed better than the control group on inhibitory control and working memory.
Furthermore, the researchers tested whether the training had any effect on math and reading grades. The students who attended school consistently improved on math and reading, regardless of which training group they were in, but interestingly, the story was different for the students who had attendance issues. The ones in the trained group improved almost as much as the students who were at school all the time, and much better than the students in the control group who didn’t attend regularly. This suggests that the training helped these students catch up in academic skills as well as improving in executive function skills.