Executive Skills … What are they and why do they matter for young children?

Editor’s note: Early educators throughout Addison County are raising awareness of the importance of early brain development, and positive child experiences. Expanding our understanding will help us all become the best parents, caregivers and teachers we can be. This is the first of two articles about early brain development and how conditions in very early life, beginning in pregnancy, can affect individuals far into adulthood.
The dictionary defines “executive” as a person with senior managerial responsibilities in a business organization; having the ability to put plans, actions or laws into action. In this article, and the one that follows, we will consider “executive skills” in specific ways that will help us understand our behavior and learning and that of children in a user-friendly way.
For our purposes, executive skills (hereafter ES) can be thought of as “brain-based skills that help individuals complete tasks and become independent.” Babies are not born with ES. They are born with the potential to develop ES over time. For example, babies cannot play a violin as a newborn. But they have the potential to play a violin if they have healthy bodies, grow up with access to music and instruments, and have individuals who help them groom their violin-playing skills. ES are similar. The dictionary defines “skill” as “the ability to do something well.” For most of us, this implies practice, as in, “practice makes perfect.” Viewing skills as qualities still being developed, or under construction is, for me, a very hopeful perspective.
In “Smart But Scattered,” authors Peg Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD, discuss 11 types of ES. We will examine some of them in this issue and the rest at another time. The following list of ES are not listed in any particular order.
Response Inhibition/Inhibitory Control: This is the opposite of impulsivity. It means being able to think before doing or speaking. It involves patience and thoughtfulness. A toddler might impulsively run into a street to fetch his ball without regard for danger. An older child with better-developed skills would first assess the situation before retrieving his ball. As older individuals, we carefully consider what we say so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings (by mistake), or “mouth off” to a boss, spouse or partner.
Emotional Control: This one is straightforward. It is the ability to manage emotions. It helps us recover from disappointment, handle anxiety, and cope with feelings of anger. A two-year-old with immaturely developed emotional control may have a tantrum when she cannot have a certain toy. An older child could handle this more calmly (stay tuned for another way to view temper tantrums). Sometimes athletes and coaches lose their emotional control; in fact, there are times when anyone can feel and be “out of control.”
Working Memory: This is a bit like your “desktop.” It is the ability to hold something in your memory, draw on past experiences or learning, and apply it to the situation at hand. For example, when someone calls to ask the telephone number of a third person, one must reach for a telephone book or select a contact list, remember that names are usually listed last name first, call upon a mental alphabet, find the name and number, and then remember to tell it to the person waiting on the phone. The same skills are needed for a history or science test, for taking orders at McDonald’s, or when installing a new door.
Flexibility: This is my favorite ES, possibly because it is the one I constantly work on. I think it is the most underappreciated ES. Flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing conditions. It is being able to revise plans in the face of setbacks, obstacles, new information, or even mistakes. Say it’s raining on beach day, and the mother suggests baking cookies instead. A child with immaturely developed flexibility (and young emotional control) may have a meltdown. A child whose flexibility is more advanced says, “Making cookies sounds good to me, Mom.” Grown-ups who have not developed flexibility are rigid, unbending and unyielding. It is hard to work as a team if one lacks this skill. It can be a social handicap to be inflexible and poorly adaptable.
Meta-cognition: This is the ability to step back and look at oneself from other perspectives. It includes self-monitoring and asking oneself, “How am I doing?” Babies and children receive feedback from loving, caring, protective adults about their behavior. A 10-month-old will crawl away to play and then look back at her mother or father as if to say, “Am I OK?” “Is this safe?” “Do you approve?” This is called “social referencing.” Early teenagers are always observing and comparing themselves to others to see how they measure up. Public speakers, teachers and comedians have to continually gauge how they are matching the mood of their audiences.
That is the first five of the 11 ES conceptualized by authors Dawson and Guare. The next installment will discuss the remaining six executive skills, which researchers find have a lot to do with a condition called Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. In the meantime, savvy thinkers may be asking, “Executive skills — so what? Why bother learning about this topic?”
It is important to keep in mind that ES develop by baby steps and that we all need teaching, modeling and support to groom them so we can use our many other talents. When ES remain undeveloped, life can be very challenging. When viewed as “skills,” one understands that with the proper “scaffolding,” opportunities to practice and hard work, each of the ES can be improved. It is just like sports, music, academics, etc. Practice, repetition and rehearsal are the ways we learn. Nurturing our ES is no exception.
Addison Building Bright Futures is part of the Building Bright Futures (BBF) statewide network. BBF is the only statewide nonprofit, public-private partnership organization focused solely on improving the well-being of young children and families by improving the system that serves them. Addison Building Bright Futures partners with Let’s Grow Kids, a privately funded, statewide public education campaign to raise awareness about the importance of the earliest years to the success of Vermont’s children, communities and economy.
Dr. Johana “Jody” Brakeley is a member of Addison Building Bright Futures and a Let’s Grow Kids volunteer. Dr. Brakeley is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and former pediatrician in Middlebury.

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