The Executive Function Skill Set
Dr. Connolly moved to Shelburne, Vermont during her childhood and graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School. She subsequently attended Williams College, where she graduated with a B.A. in American Studies. Dr. Connolly earned her M.D. at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and completed her residency in Pediatrics in Burlington. She currently works as a general pediatrician at Franklin County Pediatrics in St. Albans, and serves on the board of the American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter as well as the Steering Committee for the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance. Dr. Connolly is passionate about early child health and well-being both as a pediatrician and as a mother to her two-year-old son, Colin.
Imagine a day when you have a long to-do list of greater and lesser priorities. You choose one task to start on, but are distracted by the background noise of a lively conversation nearby. You succeed in mentally blocking out the chatter just as your phone rings or someone knocks on your door.
“Executive function” is the important set of skills that enable us to choose and balance priorities, work toward future goals, multitask, regulate our emotional reactions and adjust plans as we go. Executive functioning is what scientists often call our brain’s “air traffic control system,” balancing incoming information and outgoing communication and actions. We are not born with these skills; they are learned—and the most important building blocks of executive functioning are formed in the early years of life.
The executive function skill set is based in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—the center for some of our most complex behaviors, like decision-making, problem-solving, and regulating social behavior—but requires strong connections with many other areas of the brain to operate correctly.
As the brain rapidly develops over the first few years, forming one million new connections every second, the most basic skills are wired first, and increasingly complex skills are built on top of that foundation. Executive functioning matures in early adulthood, but the capacity of those skills—how successful we are at those behaviors—is dependent upon the quality of the foundation built in the first years.
Providing our youngest children with the guidance, support, and learning opportunities they need to develop the building blocks for executive functioning is essential to healthy development and to their later success in school, relationships, and the workforce. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child states that, “In many ways, coming to school with a solid base of these foundational executive function skills is more important than whether children know their letters and numbers.”
Three key elements are critical to healthy development of executive function:
- Relationships - Healthy relationships with adults at home, in the community, or in a quality childcare or preschool setting provide support, guidance, and role modeling. Adults can help children learn how to regulate their emotions, make choices in different situations, and resist distractions.
- Activities - Activities appropriately matched to ability level can foster social connections with other children and offer opportunities to practice new skills over time, like planning, communicating with others, and remembering roles. Imaginative play serves an important role in developing these skills. Children who receive individualized guidance from adults that allows for increasing independence will learn to direct themselves in their activities.
- Environments – Children need a safe, stimulating, and stable environment that supports and nurtures relationships with adults and provides opportunities for these activities.
Children who do not get the opportunities, supportive relationships, or guidance needed to practice executive functioning skills in the early years can have difficulty with:
- Attention and focus
- Regulation of emotion
- Mental flexibility
- Following rules and directions
- Planning and achieving goals
Healthy development in early childhood enables personal success later in life. The health and development of our children directly affects the health and prosperity of our local communities and economy. By supporting relationships, activities, and environments that allow our children to become productive community members and strong leaders, we have a real opportunity to invest in our future.
by Dr. Kristen Connolly, MD, Franklin County Pediatrics