Building Executive Function Skills

Executive Function – Essential for Learning and Development

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University provides an excellent summary of executive function:

At their core, executive function skills include three brain processes that are essential for learning and development. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University provides an excellent summary of executive function:

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families.

Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.

  • Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

Based on 15 years of reviewing research, Mind in the Making (MITM), a program of the Families and Work Institute (FWI), specifies seven executive function life skills that build on these core brain processes. ( They are:

1) Focus and Self-Control: Children need this skill in order to achieve their goals, especially in a world that is filled with distractions and information overload. It involves paying attention, remembering the rules, thinking flexibly and exercising self-control.

2) Perspective Taking: This skill goes beyond empathy; it involves figuring out what others think and feel, and forms the basis for children’s understanding of their parents’, teachers’ and friends’ intentions. Children who can accept other perspectives are also much less likely to get involved in conflicts.

3) Communicating: This skill involves much more than understanding language, speaking, reading and writing. It drives determination of what one wants to communicate and aids realization of how one’s communications will be understood by others. Teachers and employers feel this skill is most lacking today.

4) Making Connections: Figuring out what’s the same and what’s different, and sorting these things into categories is at the heart of learning. Making unusual connections is at the core of creativity. In a world where people can Google for information, it is the people who can see connections who are able to go beyond knowing information to using the information well.

5) Critical Thinking: This is the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge to guide beliefs, decisions and actions.

6) Taking on Challenges: Life is full of stresses and challenges. Children who are willing to take on challenges (instead of avoiding them or simply coping with them) do better in school and in life.

7) Self-Directed, Engaged Learning: It is through learning that we can realize our potential. As the world changes, so can we, as long as we learn.

For more information:

Mind in the Making