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Executive function describes a set of abilities humans need in their everyday life. It involves processes in our brains that make us focus our attention to certain things, help us plan, manage and do various activities at one time without being distracted by the things around us or other thoughts within us. This ability is very important for us to learn and develop as well as making the best choices for ourselves and behave in positive ways when many possible factors around us (e.g., friends, family, our needs, the weather) can influence and direct our behaviour.  

Executive functioning skills are not something children are born with, but they develop them over time. The development of these skills can be fostered through adults establishing routines, encouraging positive behaviour, and maintaining supportive relationships. Similarly, children can foster the development by engaging in activities that involve creative play, social connections, and coping with stress. 

On the other hand, a difficult home with a lot of stress for the child due to for example caregivers being neglectful, abusive, or violent can seriously delay or even impair executive functioning altogether. 


Executive functioning depends largely on three interrelated brain processes that coordinate with each other: Working Memory, Set-Shifting or Cognitive/ Mental Flexibility and Inhibitory Control/ Self-Control

Working Memory

The working memory is the name for the ability to remember and change information in short time spans. For example, if a child is asked to solve a mathematical equation, it will need to remember the numbers involved as well as the mathematical sign and apply it to get the solution. All the information will be held and manipulated in the working memory to produce the result. 

Some research shows that working memory develops along improvements of children’s ability to reason as well as how fast their brain deals with information. Other research suggested, that working memory develops similar to long-term memory which mostly improves when children increase their knowledge, strategies to remember things and the general number of memories they have.  

Inhibitory Control

Having inhibitory control means having the ability to resists impulsive behaviour or temptations and instead pause and think before acting. For example, a child might want to tell their caregiver something they have done in school today, but the caregiver is currently talking on the phone. If the child has a well-developed inhibitory control, it will be able to wait until the phone call is done. If its development is not that far yet, it might try and interrupt its caregiver or talk over them. 

Some research on ambiguous figures (images that can be interpreted as showing two different things) suggested children who grew up bilingually have a better inhibitory control compared to monolinguals, since they are better at inhibiting the first interpretation of the image and seeing the alternative interpretation. 

The girl in the video (striped shirt) struggles with inhibiting her impulsive behaviour and interrupts another girl who is participating in a task multiple times.

Set-Shifting

Set-shifting is the ability to maintain or change attention and behaviour depending on what is relevant for the child due to for example, the demands of others or changes in perspective or priorities. This includes adjusting the behaviour based on the knowledge that certain places have certain rules to follow. For example, a child might know that in a classroom they have to be quiet and listen to the teacher as opposed to chatting to their friends, but when they are on a break, they can be loud and talking to their friends as much as they want. 

Set-shifting can be measured through a verbal fluency task. Here children have to name as many animals as they can and are rated based on the number of categories their named animals come from (e.g. shark, tuna, clownfish are all be from the category “fish” and thus be rated lower than shark, elephant, seagull which are from three different categories of animals). Researchers found that the number of categories, that children name animals from, increases especially between the ages of 6 and 8. Therefore, it was suggested that set-shifting increases with age. 

References

Henry, L. (2011). The development of working memory in children. Sage.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2011). Building the Brain’s” Air Traffic Control” System: How Early ExperiencesShape the Development of Executive Function. Working Paper 11.

Spencer, J. P. (2020). The development of working memory. Current directions in psychological science, 29(6), 545-553.

Taranu, M., Wimmer, M. C., Ross, J., Farkas, D., van Ee, R., Winkler, I., & Denham, S. L. (2019). Children’s perception of visual and auditory ambiguity and its link to executive functions and creativity. Journal of experimental child psychology184, 123-138.

Wimmer, M. C., & Marx, C. (2014). Inhibitory processes in visual perception: A bilingual advantage. Journal of experimental child psychology126, 412-419.

Wimmer, M. C., Marx, C., Stirk, S., & Hancock, P. J. (2020). Bilinguals’ inhibitory control and attentional processes in a visual perceptual task. Psychological research, 1-10.

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