Executive function and self-regulation skills are very important skills to gain even from early childhood because they are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Similarly, to an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.
“When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families.”
According to Harvard University’s research executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control – which are highly interrelated.
- Working memorygoverns our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
- Mental flexibilityhelps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
- Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.
Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. Some children may need more support than others to develop these skills.
Providing 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. Growth-promoting environments provide children with “scaffolding” that helps them practice necessary skills before they must perform them alone. Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.