Following a surge of research in early childhood executive function – a set of mental skills that includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control – a new investigation proposes that rather than being an internal system that develops over time for children, it develops with ‘many influences’ from outside the mind.
The development of executive function is critical to a broad range of human skills and is tied to long-term outcomes for adulthood. It has been shown to play a role in everything from children’s readiness for school to their social relationships.
“We propose that executive function is really about using cues from the environment to guide your behaviour,” said research team leader, assistant professor Sammy Perone, Washington State University.
“As humans we use our experience and norms to decide what’s the appropriate path to take, so to encourage executive function development, we want to help children build those connections between cues and appropriate behaviours.”
In a classroom, these cues might include things such as decorations on the wall, verbal instructions or the way tables are set up. Eliminating environmental distractions may also help children control their behaviour like having sharpened pencils on hand or resolving a tottering desk chair. In addition, physical things normally thought of as peripheral, like whether a child has adequate sleep or enough to eat, also influence executive function, Perone said.
The dominant view held is that executive function has three distinct neurocognitive processes: working memory, inhibitory control – the ability to stop yourself from doing something – and cognitive flexibility, which allows you to transition from one activity to the next. This perspective has been called into question, Perone said.
"If these different cognitive processes are what makes up executive function, you would think you could just train those processes, and then, you can then use them everywhere," he said.
"Turns out, that doesn't work, and that's been shown over and over again. People think and behave in an environment, so we can't just train executive function by say doing computer exercises on working memory."
The new research draws on dynamic systems theory, which originated in mathematics and physics, and builds on the work of cognitive scientist Sabine Doebel who called for a redefinition of executive function in her research Rethinking Executive Function and its Development: “… the development of executive function is better understood as the emergence of skills in using control in the service of specific goals.
Such goals activate and are influenced by mental content such as knowledge, beliefs, norms, values, and preferences that are acquired with development and are important to consider in understanding children’s performance on measures of executive function.”
"We need to think more about executive function as it operates – as goal-directed behaviour in the real world," Perone said.
"When you take that perspective, all of a sudden, it becomes much more practical to childcare providers and parents, because that's where kids are thinking and behaving and developing."
Illustrating the theory
The research paper, A Dynamical Reconceptualization of Executive-Function Development was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, February 2021 and includes examples to illustrate their new theory.
One example is an intervention (p19), which looks at outside factors like goals and related beliefs, norms, and knowledge. The example is based on a preschool teacher who would like students in the classroom to ‘not’ put their fingers in their mouth to avoid getting sick.
From the traditional three-component view of executive function, training working memory and inhibitory control processes should help children remember the rule to not touch their face and resist the urge to do so.
From Doebel’s view, by contrast, a more effective approach would be to help children set a goal to not get sick, discuss the value of being healthy, and build their knowledge about how germs can be transmitted by putting fingers in their mouths. This is goal-directed behaviour.
For a quick and entertaining overview of this theory take a look at Doebel’s TED talk (9min) on How your brain’s executive function works – and how to improve it. Within her presentation she details a different perspective on the classic ‘Marshmallow Test,’ which is a measure for delayed gratification that requires a lot of executive function.
The test gives children the choice to have a marshmallow straight away or get an extra one if they wait. Most kids want the second marshmallow, but the key question is: How long can they wait?
Doebel added a twist to look at the effects of context. Each child was told they were in a group, like the green group, and were given a green T-shirt to wear. They were then told: “Your group waited for two marshmallows, and the orange group did not.” She then left the room and watched to see how long they waited.
She discovered that kids who believed their group waited for two marshmallows were more likely to wait – suggesting that a peer group they’d never met had influenced them. This example illustrates how context matters. In her TED talk, Doebel says, “It’s not that these kids had good executive function or bad, it’s that the context helped them use it better.”
In practice, helping children behave in a goal-directed fashion should focus on helping them connect goals to cues and provide supporting contextual information.
If the target goal-directed behaviour is for a child to sit quietly during story time for example, the goal to sit quietly should be linked to context information, such as gathering for storytime and cues, such as the physical act of sitting down or the teacher opening the book. The links between goals, cues, and contextual information are strengthened through use and makes the target behaviour more likely to be repeated.
Doebel’s research paper, Rethinking Executive Function Development suggests that future intervention to support executive function can try to influence it with a view to specific goals, related knowledge, beliefs, values and more (p22).
Reference and further reading
Harvard University: A traditional explanation of executive function and self-regulation