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Understanding Executive Function

Executive function (EF) is the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. We can distinguish between three components: Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility. All 3 are interlinked and influence each other. As Executive Function develops mainly during the first 5 years of our lives, parents and teachers can support its development.


What is it?

Psychologist Deborah Phillips from Georgetown University, calls it the “air traffic control system” of our brain. Similar to the way an air traffic control system has to manage lots of airplanes departing and landing with perfect timing, we have to manage a lot of information and distractions simultaneously. Without good executive functions, disaster strikes. Let’s look at three different components:


Working Memory

The Working Memory is responsible for processing information. If well developed, it allows us to manage multiple chunks of information at the same time. Complex tasks can be solved and deep ideas understood. Without a strong working memory, our intelligence is limited.


Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory Control describes our capability to concentrate, regulates our emotions and controls our behavior during stressful situations. It’s an essential skill if we want to change a childhood habit. Without it, we might have trouble controlling our behavior and can come across as “weird.”


Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to adopt new tasks quickly and to change our perspective. If we have little of it, we get stuck in old thoughts and have tunnel vision. We come across as stubborn and uncooperative.


How to support it?

Executive function develops mainly during the first 5 years of our lives. A caring, playful and nourishing childhood is our best bet to increase these skills. Free play trains our inhibitory control and games practice our working memory. Playing an instrument trains our brain to process the notes, and to coordinate the right and the left hand simultaneously. When speaking or playing with others, we learn to control our emotions. Movement is great as well. In football each situation is new, ball possession requires quick decisions and builds cognitive flexibility. One study showed that kids who walked barefoot each day for just 16 minutes improved their working memory. Because when they do, they need to keep many things in mind.


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Harvard Center of the Developing Child