Growing the Executive Branch, Pt. 1: Experiences and Executive Functions

If you have ever witnessed your child work through a problem, wait for a reward, or make plans for an upcoming event, you’re watching their executive functions in action. When they’ve easily lost their temper, forgotten what you said, or were too rigid to view a situation from another angle; that’s evidence that those mental skills are still developing. We talked about basic executive function last fall but here’s a deeper look into what makes it grow.

Executive functions refer to a set of mental skills that allow us to appropriately engage with our environment. Together, they manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions to accomplish tasks throughout the day. It’s housed in the prefrontal cortex. Although it gathers information from other parts of the brain to determine how to plan, organize, and manage situations, it is the last of the brain regions to mature. Children are not equipped with executive function skills when they are born. Instead, they develop them through quality of experiences.

Experiences of a Lifetime

Experiences are driven by a few factors:

  • The environment. Is the area safe and protected that allows for exploration, movement, and creativity?
  • Activities. Are they just-right (challenging enough but achievable with some effort involved) and engaging enough for the child to want to do again?
  • Relationships. Are they safe, supportive, and consistent? Is there good rapport with child? Are they a good model for the child to learn from and be guided by?

If any of these areas frequently present toxic stressors to the child, it can cause them to be in constant flight-fight-fright response and deeply affect the how their executive functions develop. That frequent activation only strengthens the areas of the brain responsible for survival, not organization (Who cares about math when I have to worry about my personal safety?).

A child’s experiences are coded in two ways: active and reflective.

Active developmental experiences are the ones that happen in the present:

  • Encountering new situations
  • Explorations that encourage curiosity and creativity
  • A sense of choice to engage in activities
  • Opportunities to practice and refine skills
  • The ability to contribute in a meaningful way

Reflective developmental experiences are ones that connect memories with the current situation to better prepare for the future:

  • Evaluation of feelings and actions
  • Connection of new information and ideas with existing ones
  • Considerations of what you want to do/become vs what to avoid
  • Integration of new data to be more aware of self and the larger picture (It’s not only about you!)

These experiences allow the executive functions to grow and mature, strengthening the connections between the prefrontal cortex with the rest of the brain. This wiring of neural pathways is made possible by the release of certain chemical messengers, serotonin (the happy hormone) and dopamine (the feel-good hormone).

If an experience was positive, the chances to repeat it are high. The more you engage in that activity, the stronger the circuitry will be. That powerful connection between our actions and the memories of how it physically and emotionally made us feel is what drives our behavior.

Experiences can also be influenced by your child’s temperament. This refers to a set of traits that shape how we respond to the world and serve as the basis of our personality, gradually developing as we age. There are nine temperament traits that can have an effect on learning:

  1. Activity Level – This refers to the “speed” of your child. Is your child always on the go or do they prefer to sit and chill?
  2. Distractibility – The degree of concentration displayed when not particularly interested in an activity. Can your child focus on a non-preferred task or do they find other things to attend to?
  3. Intensity – The energy level of a response, regardless if it’s positive or negative. Does your child outwardly and overly express their emotions or mute them?
  4. Regularity – The predictability of internal body functions, like sleep or appetite. Can you set your clock based off when your child is hungry, or do they graze at weird times of the day?
  5. Sensory Threshold – The sensitivity to external environmental stimuli. Does your child pick up on every little sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture, or is unbothered by it all?
  6. Approach/Withdrawal – The response to new situations and people. Does your child just jump right in or are they slow to warm up?
  7. Adaptability – The response to transitions and change. Does your child cling to you during drop-off or do they to ghost you while greeting their teacher?
  8. Persistence – The amount of time invested in activities in the face of obstacles. Are they working diligently through a task or do they give up and ask for help?
  9. Mood – The tendency to react to the world in positive or negative way. Does your child think everything is awesome or is only happy when it rains?

Temperament varies between people. What works for one child doesn’t always work for the other (if you’re parent of multiple kids, you get this).

Another interesting tidbit is that your kid’s temperament doesn’t change, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, a child with high persistence may be more likely to achieve set goals while a child with low persistence may develop strong social skills and rely on collaboration to help complete a task. Know that there is no such thing as a “bad” or “good” temperament trait, but rather if their temperament is a good fit to the environmental conditions to ensure their success.

In other words, knowing what motivates and guides your child will help create positive experiences and build their executive functions.

Caregiver Instructions

Here’s how we can help our kids grow their executive brain:

  • Know your child. You know them better than anyone else. Read their cues (facial expressions, vocalizations, etc.), label their feelings (“Seems like you’re getting frustrated”), and help them find a solution, if need be (“What part is tricky?”). You may have to modify the environment or the task to help them be successful in certain situations.
  • Provide structure and stability. Safety comes from reliable boundaries and predictability. That means we as parents, must strive to be consistent regarding what is permitted/what isn’t, how rules and consequences will be implemented, or how we appropriately respond to our child’s reactions. The more obvious the expectations are, the easier it is for our kids to trust us, allowing them to learn and explore. When you are introducing your kid to new experiences, they will look to you first for that security and then model.
  • Create an ideal environment. Provide opportunities for your child to play (independently or with others), try new things, safely discover or tinker around with objects, and feel successful in novel activities.
  • Be a sounding board. Your kid may be thinking about a lot of things, from homework assignments to how to handle a friendship on the rocks. Be empathetic and caring to what they are going through, validate their feelings, and figure out what they need.

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Sanghvi, N.S. (2020, April 27). Development of Executive Function in Children. Retrieved from Seminar.

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