We are not born knowing how to inhibit distractors and prioritise tasks. The ability to “stop and think” is learned, and it is crucial to succeeding in school and in life.
Our brain works like an orchestra, but to maintain the correct rhythm, it needs a proficient maestro. The greatest challenge is that this maestro is in training until the end of adolescence, with a set of functions under his command, the so-called “executive functions”, which are especially important when dealing with new, non-routine situations and activities. It is through these functions that we regulate our thoughts and actions, and they can ultimately determine our success in the medium and in the long term.
Adults who care for young children can easily identify their difficulty in ignoring distractions and adjusting properly to new everyday situations. What they hardly recognise is that these capacities do not develop automatically with maturity and over time, and there may be variations among the same age group1. In neuroscience these capacities are called "executive functions", while in psychology they are referred to as "self-regulation" and "metacognitive" skills. We are not born with these skills, but our genes allow us to be prepared, from an early age, to develop them through practice2.
When we look at children and adolescents, in particular, we often wonder how some can be so driven by impulses, while others can successfully regulate their behaviours.
From a cognitive science perspective, this variation reflects individual differences in executive functioning capacities, which are described as a set of correlated processes that regulate basic cognitive processes to shape complex performances3. Some of the actions controlled by executive functioning include, for example, starting a task and focusing on that task until it is complete; organising, planning and prioritising tasks; understanding different points of view; regulating emotions and the ability to self-monitor oneself (being self-aware and able to detect and correct errors).
A search of the terms “executive functions” and “children” on PsychINFO (a cognition database currently containing 4,735,716 records), has returned 2857 publications to date. The number of scientific publications studying these capacities has increased significantly over the past 30 years, from five citations in 1985 and 14 citations in 1995, to 501 citations in 20054. In addition to being an increasingly popular research subject, executive functions are also popular in the number of hits on search engines and in the amount of software developed by commercial companies who claim to enhance executive functions through brain-specific training5. This being said, there are more than enough reasons to assess the current state of knowledge on these functions6.
What do we currently know about executive functions?
The importance of executive functions is that they enable us to interact with our environment in an entirely adaptive manner. This, in turn, will enable us to develop – through the various aspects of social, emotional and intellectual practices – the autonomy we need to perform our daily tasks. Theoretically, these functions are broadly divided into three main components:
- Inhibitory Control
The ability to focus on what is relevant and ignore distracting stimuli.
Examples: Resisting temptation or deliberately suppressing one's attention to concentrate on something that is being asked.
- Working memory
The ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind for a short period of time.
Example: Understanding a text by integrating various information and ideas into a coherent whole.
- Cognitive flexibility
The ability to think of something in more than one way, which allows us, for example, to adapt to change or plan a sequence of steps to obtain a goal.
Examples: Establishing a relationship between two subjects, considering the other's perspective on a situation, solving a math problem from different perspectives or establishing an order of priority between various tasks.
Some authors further distinguish "cold" executive functions, which involve strictly cognitive aspects (processes that operate in more neutral contexts, such as mental calculations), and "hot" executive functions, which focus on the regulation of emotions (such as controlling frustration). Both usually work together to solve real-life problems7. Other authors move executive functions away from the concept of intelligence and emphasise the ability to reason – using knowledge purposefully and putting it into practice - rather than viewing them as an intellectual skill, in the crystallised sense of the concept8.
Among the numerous attempts to clarify the complex nature of these capacities, the association between the maturation of the frontal lobes and the cognitive control that regulates thought and action stands out. Executive functions begin to develop shortly after birth (in simpler forms during the first 12 months, for example, obeying a simple instruction such as “do not touch the glass”). However, they develop in a nonlinear, progressive manner, since they appear to depend on the prefrontal cortex circuits, whose maturation happens at later stages. Therefore, the development of executive functions is only complete by the end of adolescence, with developmental peaks between ages 3 to 6, ages 8 to 9, and during adolescence9. These windows of opportunity result from children's increasing capacity to control attention – with the first developmental spurt occurring until age 5 – and from the progressive myelination and synaptogenesis of their frontal cortex – with the second spurt occurring between ages 7 and 9, and throughout adolescence.
The assessment of executive functioning at early ages has proven its crucial role in determining academic success10,11, both in terms of readiness to learn mathematics12 and readiness to learn to read13. Differences were observed in children of low socioeconomic status14 and in clinical conditions such as ADHD15 (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), autism spectrum16, depression17, and eating disorders18. Training these skills has already been shown to minimise behavioural problems19,20, and to be determinant for mental health21. Likewise, interventions that indirectly improve executive functioning, such as physical activity22,23 and meditation practices24, have also been suggested to be effective.
Despite the centrality of executive functioning in current neuroscience and cognitive science research, consensus does not yet exist on the sources of individual differences among children with a typical development. While problems with executive functioning may slow the learning process, that does not mean those children are lazy or not smart enough. It is also unclear whether the mechanisms involved in regulating a type of behaviour, such as language, share the same processes with the regulation of other types of behaviour, such as emotions. It is further being discussed whether inhibitory control is a proactive or reactive mechanism25.
What the scientific literature tells us is that developing the executive functioning potential to its fullest is a gradual, time-consuming process. There are no solutions that work for everyone. However, the sooner our brain's maestro is put into “stop and think” and action planning situations, the more successful our decision making and executive performance will be.
1 Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P., «The nature and organization of individual differences in executive functions: Four general conclusions», Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 2012, pp. 8–14.
2 Friedman, N. P., Miyake, A., Young, S. E., DeFries, J. C., Corley, R. P., & Hewitt, J. K., «Individual differences in executive functions are almost entirely genetic in origin», Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137(2), 2008, pp. 201–225.
3 Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H., «A developmental perspective on executive function», Child Development, 81(6), 2010, pp. 1641–1660.
4 Bernstein, J. H., Waber, D. P., «Executive capacities from a developmental perspective», em L. Meltzer, Executive function in education: From theory to practice, Nova Iorque, Guilford Press, 2007, pp. 39–124.
5 Baggetta, P., & Alexander, P. A., «Conceptualization and Operationalization of Executive Function», Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(1), 2016, pp. 10–33.
6 Diamond, A., «Executive Functions», Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 2013, pp. 135–168.
7 Zelazo, P. D., and Carlson, S. M., «Hot and cool executive function in childhood and adolescence: Development and plasticity», Child Development Perspective, 6(4), 2012, pp. 354–360.
8 Blair, C., «How similar are fluid cognition and general intelligence? A developmental neuroscience perspective on fluid cognition as an aspect of human cognitive ability», Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(2), 2006, pp. 109–125.
9 Anderson, P., «Assessment and development of executive function (EF) during childhood», Child Neuropsychology, 8(2), 2002, pp. 71–82.
10 Blair, C., & Diamond, A., «Biological processes in prevention and intervention: the promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure», Development and Psychopathology, 20(3), 2008, pp. 899–911.
11 Burchinal, M., Foster, T. J., Bezdek, K. G., Bratsch-Hines, M., Blair, C., & Vernon-Feagans, L., «School-entry skills predicting school-age academic and social-emotional trajectories», Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 51, 2020, pp. 67–80.
12 Cragg, L., & Gilmore, C., «Skills underlying mathematics: The role of executive function in the development of mathematics proficiency», Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 3(2), 2014, pp. 63–68.
13 McClelland, M. M., Acock, A. C., Piccinin, A., Rhea, S. A., & Stallings, M. C., «Relations between preschool attention span-persistence and age 25 educational outcomes», Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(2), 2013, pp. 314–324.
14 Hackman, D. A., & Farah, M. J., «Socioeconomic status and the developing brain», Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(2), 2009, pp. 65–73.
15 Willcutt, E. G., Doyle, A. E., Nigg, J. T., Faraone, S. V., & Pennington, B. F., «Validity of the executive function theory of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A meta-analytic review», Biological Psychiatry, 57(11), 2005, pp. 1336–1346.
16 Hill, E. L., «Executive dysfunction in autism», Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 2004, pp. 26–32.
17 Snyder, H. R. «Major depressive disorder is associated with broad impairments on neuropsychological measures of executive function: A meta-analysis and review», Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 2013, pp. 81–132.
18 Lavagnino, L., Arnone, D., Cao, B., Soares, J. C., & Selvaraj, S., «Inhibitory control in obesity and binge eating disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of neurocognitive and neuroimaging studies», Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 2016, pp. 714–726.
19 Volckaert, A., & Noël, M.-P., «Executive function, chaos and temperament: specificities in preschoolers with externalizing behaviors», Psychologica Belgica, 58(1), 2018, pp. 222–242.
20 Rosário, P., Costa, J. C., Mourão, R., Chaleta, E., Grácio, M. L., Núñez, J. C., & González-Pienda, J., «De pequenino é que se auto-regula o destino», Educação: Temas e Problemas, 4, 2007, pp. 281–293.
21 Diamond, A., & Lee, K., «Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old», Science, 333(6045), 2011, pp. 959–964.
22 Verburgh, L., Königs, M., Scherder, E. J., & Oosterlaan, J., «Physical exercise and executive functions in preadolescent children, adolescents, and young adults: a meta-analysis», British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(12), 2014, pp. 973–979.
23 Luz, C., Rodrigues, L. P., & Cordovil, R., «The relationship between motor coordination and executive functions in 4th grade children», European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12(2), 2014, pp. 129–141.
24 Zelazo, P. D., and Lyons, K. E., «The potential benefits of mindfulness training in early childhood: a developmental social cognitive neuroscience perspective», Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 2012, pp. 154–160.
25 Perri, R. L., «Is there a proactive and a reactive mechanism of inhibition? Towards an executive account of the attentional inhibitory control model», Behavioural Brain Research, 377, 2020, 112243.