According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive functions enable individuals to “plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” Executive functioning has three components: working memory, impulse control, and mental flexibility. Working memory involves retaining pieces of information for short periods of time. Impulse control refers to the ability to delay gratification. Mental flexibility is the ability to shift thought patterns to respond to given situations.
Executive function affects many skills, including paying attention, organizing, and regulating emotions. Although children are not born with these skills, they have the potential to develop them through their relationships with adults and their experiences. “Theoretical accounts and experimental data on young children have shown that executive functions are predicted by experiential factors.” A large study conducted in 2019 with kindergarten children concluded that deficits in working memory increased the risk of experiencing repeated mathematics, reading, and science difficulties across elementary school.”
Activities such as aerobics, martial arts, yoga, and mindfulness, can improve executive functions. A study from several years ago examined whether providing cognitive games to school aged children could improve some of their cognitive skills, and the results were positive: “This study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of classroom-based cognitive training in older primary school children and is of practical relevance for educators.” A recent study involving elementary school children suggested that brief physical activity breaks during the school day had an effect on reaction time and impulse control.In addition, School curricula can also support development of executive functions. Rather than directing students, teachers can pose thought-provoking questions. These include how and why questions that cause them to be responsible for their learning. For example: How can you tell? Where could you look for that information? How will you remember to use that strategy or take that action? Students can then develop an awareness of how they think and how they learn and master strategies that address these executive function processes.”