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Is It Me or My Executive Function?

If science tells us that minds are built, not born, it’s worth taking some steps in the early years to optimize their capacity

October 20, 2014
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As I’ve recently discovered, reading some of the stories on Usable Knowledge can be akin to reading WebMD; the more I learn, the more I think that one particular set of symptoms pertains to my own aches and pains.

This week’s pain happens to be distraction and writer’s block, so as I read Bari Walsh’s lead story on executive function — described in this video as “an air traffic control system in the brain” — I had to wonder whether my own current disconnections were somehow related.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has produced both a video and a guide that offer insight into what executive function is; the role it plays in what we do and how we do it; and how parents and educators can help to build this “architecture” in a child’s early years.

The video details the importance of executive function throughout our lifespan. As Georgetown University’s Deborah Phillips says, both executive function and self-regulation are key ingredients in a child’s lifetime performance. “It’s not just about learning language or numbers or colors. We have to work with others, with distraction.”

As we all know, this is often easier said than done. Still, for children in various developmental phases, as Bari’s story details, there are tangible steps to be taken to enhance their working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility — all key components to executive function skills.

The best news of the day? According to the University of Oregon’s Philip Fisher, executive function can be trained, not unlike other skill sets.

“It’s just like going to the gym,” says Fisher, “so the more you practice in these areas, the stronger the capacity is likely to become, because you’re hoping to strengthen those neuroconnections.”

With “practice” that involves storytelling, imaginary play, and even freeze dance, parents, children, and educators can all find inroads toward building those executive function muscles. Let us know what you tried and how it worked in your own context. We’d love to know.

About the Author

Mary Tamer
Mary Tamer was the senior editor of Usable Knowledge and the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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