Photo Credit: Steve Slater

Did you know that the brain is like an airport? It needs to manage many planes on multiple runways – hold and use information, concentrate, ignore distractions, and be flexible. These abilities are called executive function and self-regulation, and they rely on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. While children are not born with these abilities, they have the potential to develop them. As they grow and mature, these skills continue to develop throughout adolescence and early adulthood. It’s important for communities to provide quality interactions and experiences for children to help them develop these skills.

When children are equipped with effective executive function and self-regulation skills, both individuals and society experience lifelong benefits:

  • In terms of school achievement, executive function skills enable children to remember and follow multi-step instructions, avoid distractions, control impulsive responses, adapt to changing rules, persist in problem solving, and manage long-term assignments. This translates to a better-educated population that is capable of tackling the challenges of the 21st century.
  • When it comes to positive behaviors, executive functions assist children in developing teamwork, leadership, decision-making, goal-setting, critical thinking, adaptability, and emotional awareness. These skills foster more stable communities, reduce crime, and promote greater social cohesion.
  • Good health is another area where executive function skills are crucial. Individuals with strong executive function are better equipped to make positive choices about nutrition and exercise, resist peer pressure to take risks or engage in risky behaviors, and prioritize safety for themselves and their children. This translates to a healthier population, a more productive workforce, and reduced healthcare costs.
  • Finally, executive function skills are essential for success in the workplace. Individuals who possess these skills are better organized, able to solve complex problems that require strategic planning, and able to adapt to changing circumstances. This leads to greater economic prosperity due to an innovative, competent, and flexible workforce.

Developing strong foundational skills in children requires several critical factors, such as their relationships, the activities they engage in, and the places where they live, learn, and play.

Relationships play a crucial role in a child’s development, starting from the home and extending to caregivers, teachers, medical and human services professionals, foster parents, and peers. When important adults in a child’s life support their efforts, model the skills, engage in activities that practice those skills, provide a consistent and reliable presence, guide them towards gradual independence, and protect them from chaos, violence, and chronic adversity, children are more likely to build effective executive function skills. Toxic stress caused by chaotic or violent environments disrupts the brain circuits required for executive functioning and triggers impulsive behavior.

Building these skills in young children requires communities and caregivers to provide and support experiences that promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development broadly. Strategies that reduce stress in children’s lives, foster social connection and open-ended creative play, incorporate vigorous physical exercise, increase the complexity of skills step-by-step, and include repeated practice of skills over time can be helpful.

The home and other environments where children spend most of their time must feel and be safe, provide space for creativity, exploration, and exercise, and be economically and socially stable to reduce anxiety and stress associated with uncertainty or fear.

When children don’t receive appropriate support from adults or their surroundings, or if they’re exposed to toxic stress, their skill development can be negatively affected. However, research has shown that there are opportunities at every stage of development to provide children, adolescents, and caregivers with nurturing relationships, positive environments, and skill-building activities that can improve their executive function abilities. Starting off on the right foot is easier, less expensive, and more efficient in the long run.

In Homework in a Cafe we are ready to support the development of executive functions of your children, by offering a safe environment where they can develop positive behaviors in school achievement. Contact us now to learn more.

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Center on the Developing Child (2012). Executive Function (InBrief). Retrieved from