Continuing with the theme introduced by video in P2P’s last post, this post summarizes a working paper from Harvard University that describes how executive function is shaped by early childhood experiences & the outcomes of research in this area.

beach youthBuilding the Brain’s Air Traffic Control System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function

Working paper 11 from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child & the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy & Programs. Published by the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Find the full paper here.

What is Executive Function?

“As adults, our capacities to multitask, to display self-control, to follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and to stay focused on what we are doing despite ever-present distractions are what undergird the deliberate, intentional, goal directed behaviour that is required for daily life and success at work… Without them we could not solve complicated problems and make decisions, persist at tedious but important tasks, make plans and adjust them when necessary, recognize and correct mistakes, control our impulsive behaviour, or set goals & monitor progress toward meeting them” (p.1).

Executive function skills are “biological foundation for school readiness” (p. 4).

They include:

  • Working Memory: “the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our heads over short periods of time. It provides the mental surface on which we can place important information so it is ready to use” (p. 2).
  • Inhibitory Control: “the skill we use to master and filter our thoughts and impulses so we can resist temptations, distractions, and habits and pause to think before we act. It makes possible selective, focused, and sustained attention, prioritization, and action.” (p. 2).
  • Cognitive Flexibility: “The capacity to nimbly switch gears and adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives… Children deploy this skill to learn exceptions to rules of grammar, to approach a science experiment in different ways until they get it to work, or to try different strategies when they are working out a conflict with another child” (p. 2).

Executive function is developed throughout childhood

“By age 7, some of the capabilities and brain circuits underlying executive function skills are remarkably similar to those found in adults. Once these foundational capacities for directing attention, keeping rules in mind, controlling impulses, and enacting plans are in place, the subsequent developmental tasks of refining them and learning to deploy them more efficiently can proceed into the adolescent and early adult years” (p. 4).

Executive function inoculates against stress & trauma

“The brain regions and circuits associated with executive functioning have extensive interconnections with deeper brain structures that control the developing child’s response to threat and stress. This implies that the developing executive function system both influences and is affected by the young child’s experience and management of threat, stress and strong emotions. Thus, extended exposure to threatening situations can compromise the development of executive function skills, yet well-developed capabilities in these areas can also help children (and adults) manage stress effectively” (p. 4).

Likewise, Toxic Stress inhibits the development of executive function

“Exposure to highly stressful early environments is associated with deficits in the development of children’s working memory, attention, and inhibitory control skills. Damaging fear and toxic stress and likely mechanisms that explain these effects, in part, because they affect the chemistry of the brain circuits involved” (p. 7).

Undeveloped executive function: a ‘social contagion’

“Even when only a couple of children have underdeveloped executive function abilities, an entire classroom can become disorganized” (p. 3)

Intervention is effective

“These capacities do not automatically develop with maturity over time. Furthermore, it is even less well-known that the developing brain circuitry related to these kinds of skills follows an extended timetable that begins in early childhood and continues past adolescence” (p. 10).

“Children who have problems with these skills will not necessarily outgrow them” (p. 10).

“The same neuroplasticity that leaves executive functioning skills vulnerable to genetic and environmental disruption also presents the possibility of actively promoting the successful development of these skills” (p. 8).

“Children’s social play is believed to be an important practice ground for the development of executive function skills” (p. 6).

Children in programs designed to support the development of executive functioning “showed significant reductions in teacher-rated problem behaviour… and also performed better than their ‘usual practice’ peers on tests of early literacy abilities as well as on measures of emotional understanding and social problem-solving” (p. 10).

Policy & program response

“The most effective early education programs of the future are likely to teach preschool curriculum content (e.g., early literacy, math, social skills) in a way that optimizes the scaffolding and practice of executive function skills” (p. 12).

“The lack of services that directly address sources of toxic stress during the earliest years of life indicates a disconnect between policies and the known vulnerability of many aspects of brain development (including executive function skills)” (p. 12).

“The current evidence base is strong enough to warrant systematic scaled-up initiatives to teach executive function skills in early care and education programs that focus on vulnerable populations: (p. 12).

“Interventions that have proven successful in fostering executive functioning in young children hold considerable promise for incorporation into parent-focused interventions, such as home visiting, parenting education, and family support programs” (p. 13).

“Adding assessments of executive function skills to the repertoire of evaluation tools used in early childhood programs would not only provide important data for program planning but would also encourage attention to this critical domain” (p. 13).


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved

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