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  • Writer's pictureJeanne-Louise Uys

Just what exactly is Executive Function?

Executive function skills are the skills that help us plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Children aren’t born with these skills — they are born with the potential to develop them.

Helping young children to acquire self-regulation and executive function abilities stands them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control are the three brain functions most important for executive function and self-regulation.

Although we don't necessarily have these abilities right away, with the right support, we all have the capacity to acquire them. Some of us might need more support than others. Development of executive function can be severely hindered or delayed if children do not receive the support they need from their adult relationships and their surroundings. Children who are exposed to toxic stress in situations characterised by abuse, neglect, or violence, can undergo structural changes in the brain that disrupt the brain circuits required for executive functioning. Toxic stress triggers ‘fight or flight’ mode and impulsive behaviour. Protecting children from chaos, violence, and chronic adversity can have a significant impact on the development of core capabilities.

As teachers and parents, we can help by

· providing safe places,

· being a consistent, reliable presence that young children can trust,

· guiding children from dependence on adults to gradual independence,

· fostering social connection and open-ended creative play,

· encouraging vigorous physical exercise daily,

· instilling daily routines,

· increasing the complexity of activities gradually to ensure children are challenged but not frustrated,

· providing opportunities to practice skills repeatedly,

· demonstrating the skills and behaviours you are teaching, and

· encouraging and supporting children’s efforts.

For more information, watch this teaching video from the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University:

Source: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. 2012. ‘InBrief: Executive Function.’

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