Retrieved from:  Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University 
Children'sLifetime.org, Research from Neuroscience & Psychology

Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

An Activities Guide For Building Executive Function

Executive Function Activities for Adolescents

Executive function skills are not yet at adult levels, but the demands placed on these skills often are.

How Do These Core Capabilites Develop? 

The foundations of executive function and self-regulation are built in early childhood, but the full range of skills, and the widespread neural network that connects them, continues to develop into the adolescent and early adult years. (2) 

 

By age 3, most children are already using executive function skills in simple ways (e.g., remembering and following simple rules). Ages 3-5 show a remarkable burst of improvement in the proficiency of these skills (e.g., increased impulse control and cognitive flexibility), with another significant increase occurring approximately between ages 15 and 23.

 

The orchestration of these skills requires communication between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions. With time and the right experiences, brain regions devoted to different mental functions connect. These connections allow the regions to communicate with each other; later in childhood and adolescence, the connections become more efficient. 

 

Two things are happening in the brain during this time: increased efficiency of function within specific regions of the brain and faster flow of information among regions, which allows for better integration. The brain is dynamic and changes according to what we do and experience, and the impact of experiences is greatest when specific regions of the brain are still developing. 

Improving Outcomes For Children and Families

According to the extensive research and studies by Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child, science tells us adults need certain capabilities to succeed in life and support the development of the next generation. These skills help us to get and keep a job, provide responsive care for children, manage a household, and contribute productively to the community. When these skills have not developed as they should, or are compromised by the stresses of poverty or other sources of ongoing adversity, our communities and children pay the price in population health, education, and economic vitality.

Adults who are experiencing and/or have experienced a build-up of adversity are generally less able to deploy the very skills they need to succeed amidst challenging circumstances. Understanding how these capabilities develop and work in the brain points to two primary reasons for this pattern:

 

• Severe, frequent stress experienced early in life redirects the focus of brain development toward rapid response to threat and away from planning and impulse control.

 

• Severe, frequent stress experienced as an adult overloads our ability to use the capabilities we have and need most to overcome long-term life challenges.

 

Chaotic, stressful, and threatening situations can derail any of us. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, domestic abuse, financial instability, and uncertainty about housing are just a few of the factors that can pile up and overwhelm anyone’s physiological capacity to plan and respond to situations appropriately.

 

Experiences early in life, too, can undermine the initial development of these core capabilities. And, when adults did not have the chance to practice—as children—the skills needed to thoughtfully manage and respond to challenging events and circumstances, they must exert even more physiological and emotional effort to counteract the stress of current problems.

This additional challenge increases the likelihood of being overwhelmed by problems and unable to see a path to a solution. Any combination of undeveloped skills can trigger inappropriate actions and reactions as a parent towards a child. This can begin the long journey of neglect and abuse.  

What are the Core Life Skills Adults Need Most During Challenging Periods?  

Neuroscience and psychology points to a set of underlying core capabilities that adults use to manage life, work, and parenting effectively. These include, but are not limited to, planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility. To scientists, these capabilities fall under the umbrella of “self-regulation,” which is built upon a foundation of “executive function.” Self-regulation is the set of capabilities that help us to draw upon the right skills at the right time, manage our responses to the world, and resist inappropriate responses. 

 

Life skills include psycho-social competencies and interpersonal skills that help people make rational decisions, develop an aptitude for problem solving, critical and creative thinking, effective communication, building of healthy relationships, empathizing with other and cope with the managing of their lives in a healthy and productive manner. 

What Undermines  Our Ability to Use These Core Capabilities?

Serious early adversity can affect later self-regulatory abilities. Early in life, exposure to highly stressful environments is associated with deficits in the development of working memory, attention, and inhibitory control skills. Early trauma overdevelops the “fear circuitry” in the brain, making one more likely to perceive and focus attention on potential threats throughout life. If threats are seen where none exist, or are perceived to be greater than they really are, they can easily hijack the attention system, trigger the automatic response system inappropriately, and reduce the ability to regulate attention and emotion.

 

Early trauma also increases the magnitude of the body’s stress response over the lifespan, which leads to higher physiological levels of stress, higher risk of stress-related health difficulties and mood disorders, greater difficulty modulating and accurately appraising emotion, and compromised executive function abilities. 

 

Exposure to severe and chronic adversity early in life can trigger a toxic stress response that affects the chemistry of brain circuits involved in the development of executive function and self-regulation capacities. This impairs the specific neuronal architecture that is engaged when we try to keep information in working memory, inhibit a habitual action, or address problems in a flexible manner. Toxic stress can also destabilize mental health, an essential foundation for self-regulation.

Strengthening Coping Abilities and Reducing Sources of Stress  

Building on and improving the core abilities of adults is essential not only to their own success as parents and workers, but also to the development of the same capabilities in the children in their care. Practicing life skills leads to qualities such as self-esteem, sociability and tolerance.

Coping with stress  means recognizing the sources of stress in our lives, recognizing how this affects us, and acting in ways that help us control our levels of stress, by changing our environment or lifestyle and learning how to relax.

Coping with emotions means involving recognizing emotions within us and others,  being aware of how emotions  influence behavior and being able  to  respond to emotions appropriately. Intense emotions like anger or sadness can have negative effects on our health if we do not respond appropriately.

Children model their parents’ behaviors, including those related to managing stress. Parents who deal with stress in unhealthy ways risk passing those behaviors on to their children. Alternatively, parents who cope with stress in healthy ways can not only promote better adjustment and happiness for themselves, but also promote the formation of critically important habits and skills in children.

Key Principals of Development

1. Support nurturing and responsive relationships for children and adults.

2. Strengthen core life skills. 

3. Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

Building Core Capabilities For Life

The Science Behind the Skills Adults Need to Succeed in Parenting and in the Workplace.

Building Core Capabilities For Life, 
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
References:
“Deep Dives: The Science of Adult Capabilities.”
https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/deep-dives/adult-capabilities/
2. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Building Core Capabilities for Life:
The Science Behind the Skills Adults Need to Succeed in Parenting and in the Workplace. (2016)
“Key Concepts: Executive Function & Self-Regulation.”
https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/