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Development of Executive functions in children

Executive functions are the cognitive skills that we need in order to control and regulate their thoughts, emotions and actions in moments of conflict or under the influence of distractions. Psychologists sometimes distinguish between “cold” Executive functions, which refer strictly to cognitive skills (such as the ability to count in the mind) and ” hot ” Executive functions, which help regulate emotions (such as the ability to control anger).

There are three kinds of Executive functions:

1. Self-control is the ability to resist temptation and do the right thing instead. Self-control helps children focus, act less impulsively, and stay focused while doing some work.

2. Working memory – ability to remember information, to suggest where it can be used to establish a link between ideas and to prioritize.

3. Cognitive flexibility – the ability to think creatively and change their behavior in accordance with changing circumstances. Cognitive flexibility allows us to use imagination and creativity to solve problems.

How important is this?

Executive functions are very important for the development of the child. This is evidenced by the fact that by the extent to which a child has developed Executive functions at an early age, it is possible to assume with a high degree of confidence how high his performance will be at school, how much he will be able to adapt in society, how much he will adhere to a healthy way of life, etc.

Therefore, it is extremely important for parents to find ways to support the development of Executive functions in the first years of a child’s life.

What is already known?

It takes time for the child to fully develop Executive functions. This is partly due to the slow maturation of the prefrontal cortex. The development of Executive functions becomes noticeable when children remind themselves of important goals (for example, when they refuse to watch TV in order to do homework).

Also, the development of Executive functions is observed when children learn to analyze the environment to decide how to act in a particular situation (for example, they understand that it is necessary to learn lessons to successfully pass the exam, and therefore refuse to watch TV). Lack of development of Executive functions may explain, for example, why young children seem stubborn and refuse to follow the logical instructions of their parents (for example, refuse to wear a hat in the winter). Often Executive functions are poorly developed in children who grew up in poor families.

Children are very sensitive to early emotional experiences, which can interfere with the development of Executive functions or, conversely, contribute to it. For example, stress can be so detrimental to the development of a child’s Executive functions that their behavior may be similar to that of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (so children with impaired Executive functions are often misdiagnosed with ADHD).

On the other hand, a positive emotional experience (for example, a good relationship with parents at an early age) can protect the child from the negative impact of stressful factors (for example, difficult material conditions of the family). Consequently, the Executive functions of such children develop normally. Children of sympathetic parents who use a soft approach in education, rather than strict discipline, also tend to develop their Executive functions better.

Well-developed Executive functions lead to high academic performance, well-developed social and emotional skills. In lower grades, Executive functions have a greater impact on a child’s academic performance than intelligence and ability to read or count. Psychologists suggest that this is due to the fact that Executive functions help the child to navigate in an ever-changing environment. Therefore, their development is especially important for those children who grow up in disadvantaged conditions.

Separate Executive functions are associated with the fact that the child understands the thoughts and actions of other people. For example, the child understands that other people may have different ideas about the world than his own. This is a necessary skill for successful social interaction.

The advantages of well-developed Executive functions are obvious. However, poor development of Executive functions is typical for a number of disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavior and learning disorders, autism, depression, etc. Early problems with the development of Executive functions may persist throughout childhood and even adolescence.

What can be done?

Working with a child psychologist can help preschoolers develop their Executive functions. Through this, they can improve academic performance, develop social and emotional skills, and create new neural connections. Early intervention can also reduce difficulties associated with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and behavior disorders. Such classes give good results for children aged 4-5 years. In the course of such classes, the child learns the skills of self-regulation, most often-in a playful way.

There are also a number of activities that contribute to the development of Executive functions in the child. Such activities include music, yoga, meditation, martial arts, etc.

It is also worth paying attention to the atmosphere in which learning takes place in the lower grades. Children should be more active during the lesson, so you should spend more time working in small groups and less-in large groups. Children with well-developed Executive functions require less intervention from teachers. It is also important to eliminate all stressful factors in the educational process. Younger children should also be taught in a playful way. For example, you can play with him on the roles of various social situations. So the child learns more about different social roles and learns to adapt to constantly changing situations.

It is important to understand that Executive functions develop over many years. And even a very motivated child can find it difficult to follow all the instructions of their parents (for example, do not eat cookies before dinner) or focus on something for a long time. So give the child time.

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