The executive function refers to skills that help us focus, plan, set priorities, work towards goals, self-regulate behaviors and emotions, adapt to new and unexpected situations, and ultimately think and plan abstractly. Just like a chief conductor for an orchestra, executive functions oversee and coordinate a wide variety of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional tasks.
Executive roles in childhood are a standard challenge. This is because, although our leadership skills begin to develop in the first year of life, they are not fully developed until early adulthood.
Executive role in children
As with other developmental milestones, there is normal variability in the time that children reach executive function milestones. However, some children have above-average challenges or delays related to their leadership skills.
Some children experience problems with executive function as problems with impulse control, tantrums, and difficulties with self-regulation of emotions. For others, challenges with school organization, time management, and remembering instructions are more visible. Young people struggling with managerial tasks often have a very difficult time gaining independence and making plans for the future.
Contrary to our opinion, the functioning of leaders is not related to a single skill, and skills of leaders do not develop in a linear fashion. The main components of executive functions include inhibitory control (the ability to control impulses); Working memory (a type of short-term memory in which information is temporarily stored and processed); and cognitive flexibility or displacement (the ability to switch between thinking about different topics). Each of these skills develop at different rates, with growth windows and options for intervention.
Leadership qualities can be significantly promoted or hindered by environmental factors such as early childhood stress, family structure and educational opportunities. Fortunately, this means that these skills are extremely malleable and open to improvement. Evidence-based interventions have been thoroughly studied and have shown that the executive functions of children can be strengthened through structured educational, neuropsychological and socio-emotional programs.
Promising interventions: cognitive training, neurofeedback and physical activity
Interventions aimed at executive functions in children have grown exponentially in recent years. There is evidence of some benefit that may vary depending on the child’s cognitive characteristics (such as language, memory, or intellectual functions), family function, and underlying medical or psychological conditions.
Perhaps the best-known interventions are those that use computerized programs like Cogmed Cognitive Training or neurofeedback like Mightier. These child-friendly interventions consist of relatively intensive training (e.g. several sessions per week for five to 15 weeks) of certain managerial functions such as working memory or impulse control. There is consistent data to support the use of these interventions. However, critics wonder whether these improvements can be generalized to support improved leadership functions in daily life.
There is strong evidence that certain school curricula improve leadership in young children, especially children who use a tools of the mind approach. This pedagogical approach includes a focus on teaching self-regulatory and socio-emotional skills through dramatic play and collaborative learning. In these classrooms, children learn skills such as variety, active listening, and developing creative ways to solve problems.
Interventions with physical activity (such as aerobics or yoga) as well as organized sports activities (such as soccer or basketball) and martial arts promote the development of leadership skills, as children have to keep an eye on rules and strategies and adapt flexibly to the actions of others and their own performance Monitor behavior. Physical activity is also important in keeping blood (and therefore oxygen) flowing to the brain and promoting emotional well-being, which in turn is essential for the development of children’s executive functions.
Promising Intervention: Mindfulness
As we learn more about what improves leadership, we also realize that stress is one thing that “freezes” children’s ability to use leadership appropriately. Chronic stress and anxiety, often due to family, school, or health problems, are one of the greatest risk factors for life-span executive dysfunction, especially in children for whom the executive functions that help us deal with stress are not yet fully developed are .
Mindfulness training appears to be an ideal candidate to address both stress relief and leadership improvement at the same time. Mindfulness training involves the practice of drawing attention to the present moment, to what we are doing and what we are feeling without judgment. Mindfulness interventions have increasingly been adapted to children of all ages by performing simple exercises on breathing, body scanning, gratitude, and kindness to themselves and others. The emerging data is encouraging and shows that children who participate in mindfulness programs exhibit less anxiety, more focus and memory skills, and are better at handling difficult emotions.
The takeaway message
There is certainly no single intervention to improve executive function in children. Typically, developing children and children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, or learning disabilities can respond very differently to each of these interventions. Not all of them may be feasible or even reasonable for some children and families.
The best approach is one that takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of each child, as well as the needs and functions of each individual family. For example, offering overly intense computer-assisted training to an already anxious and stressed child may not be the most appropriate option as it would reduce the amount of time they may need to relax, exercise, and potentially develop emotional resilience to practice.
Regardless of the intervention, parent-child relationships are key. It is the constant support of parents and family, shared experiences and time together that they spend with everyday activities like reading books, cooking or dancing that help improve children’s self-regulatory skills. These are undoubtedly the most effective and permanent bases for executive functions.
Interventions to support the development of executive functions in children aged 4 to 12 years. science, August 19, 2011.
Randomized controlled study of working memory intervention in congenital heart disease. The Journal of PediatricsDecember 2020.
Cognitive training / neurofeedback
Adaptive training leads to a lasting improvement in poor working memory in children. Development science, July 2009.
Computerized working memory training in children with ADHD – a randomized, controlled study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, February 2005.
Improving Neurodevelopmental Outcomes in Children with Congenital Heart Disease: Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Study of Working Memory Training. BMJ Open19th February 2019.
“RAGE-Control”: A game to build up emotional strength. Games for the health journal, February 2013.
A Mindfulness-Based Program Embedded in Existing Curriculum Improves Leadership Functionality and Behavior in Young Children: A Waiting List Controlled Study. Limits in PsychologySeptember 10, 2019.
Relating mindfulness and executive function in children. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry, April 2020.