Enhancing Executive Function Skills with Children from 6 months to 7 years
Executive function skills provide scaffolding for all learning and development. These skills allow children to remember information, filter out distractions, focus attention, and move on to new things. There are three parts to these skills. They are:
- Inhibitory control – Being able to control impulses, thoughts, distractions, habits, fight temptations and to think before taking action.
- Cognitive plasticity – The ability to change gears and make provision for changing demands or concerns.
- Working memory – Holding information in the mind and using it.
Inhibitory control, cognitive plasticity and working memory all help children and adults to remember the information that is needed to behave appropriately, control negative impulses such as frustration, exclude distractions, and concentrate when completing an activity. Children also use these skills to decide to do something, plan how to do it, determine how they are progressing and change what they are doing if necessary.
Children are not born with executive function skills, however, all children have the potential to develop them. The development of these skills is shaped by the child’s experiences. It begins in infancy and goes into early adulthood. By participating in meaningful social engagement and pleasurable activities, children build these skills. Participation allows children to call upon increasingly demanding self-regulatory levels.
When children are babies interacting adults help focus their attention, build working memory and manage their reactions to various experiences. By playing, participating in games and doing schoolwork children practice self-control, integrating attention and using working memory to support their ability to plan, problem solve and concentrate.
As children develop these skills, they need lots of practice to assess their experiences by talking about them, examining what they have done and considering what to do next. The role of the adult is to support the development of these skills, initially by helping the child to complete challenging activities and then by allowing them to manage these activities on their own when they are ready to do so.
Within a Montessori Environment the development of executive function and self-regulatory skills are facilitated by allowing the child to understand through the child’s own experiences. By using the materials and promoting the child’s ability to find things out for themselves, learning is encouraged. Physical exploration is linked with cognition and the development of concentration. The prepared environment with self-correcting materials encourage internal self-discipline. Working and learning are matched to the social development of the child and finally Montessori focuses on holistic learning.