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Definition

Executive function is an umbrella term for top-down mental processes that you use when you have to concentrate or pay attention, and override automatic reactions or instincts.  Using executive functions is not easy; it requires straying from what you normally do, resisting temptations, and switching off the 'automatic pilot' and consciously considering what to do next. Research generally differentiates between three basic executive functions:

  1. Inhibition (inhibitory control, including self-control or behavioural inhibition, and interference control, such as selective attention and cognitive inhibition) 
  2. Working memory 
  3. Cognitive flexibility  

From these basic executive functions, higher-order cognitive processes and behavioural skills, such as reasoning, problem solving, planning, and social cognition (empathy, theory of mind, and emotion regulation) are built. Executive functions are absolutely necessary in all areas of life; for mental and physical health, success in school and in life, and cognitive, social, and psychological development. 

Some of these executive functions are (but not limited to):

  1. controlling cognition (metacognition)
  2. programming behaviour
  3. inhibiting immediate responses
  4. abstracting
  5. problem solving
  6. verbal regulation of behaviour
  7. reorienting behaviour according to the behavioural consequences
  8. subjecting behaviour to learned social norms
  9. delaying reinforcement
  10. temporality of behaviour
  11. personality integrity
  12. prospection of behaviour
  13. morality
  14. self-awareness

Barker, J. et al. (2014) Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Executive functions in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve executive functions early in life. Many interventions are led by trained adults, including structured training activities in the lab, and less-structured activities implemented in schools. Such programs have yielded gains in children’s externally-driven executive functioning, where they are instructed on what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. However, it is less clear how children’s experiences relate to their development of self-directed executive functioning, where they must determine on their own what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6-7 year-old children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children’s activities as “structured” or “less-structured” based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children’s self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. These relationships were robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning). We discuss implications, caveats, and ways in which potential interpretations can be distinguished in future work, to advance an understanding of this fundamental aspect of growing up.

Date:
January 2014
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
5
Page/s:
1-16
Synonyms:
  • Correlational
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Playful learning
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Bernier, A. et al. (2010) From External Regulation to Self-Regulation: Early Parenting Precursors of Young Children’s Executive Functioning (Journal Article)

Abstract:

In keeping with proposals emphasizing the role of early experience in infant brain development, this study investigated the prospective links between quality of parent–infant interactions and subsequent child executive functioning (EF), including working memory, impulse control, and set shifting. Maternal sensitivity, mind-mindedness and autonomy support were assessed when children were 12 to 15 months old (N = 80). Child EF was assessed at 18 and 26 months. All three parenting dimensions were found to relate to child EF. Autonomy support was the strongest predictor of EF at each age, independent of general cognitive ability and maternal education. These findings add to previous results on child stress-response systems in suggesting that parent–child relationships may play an important role in children’s developing self-regulatory capacities.

Date:
January 2010
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
81
Page/s:
326-339
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Longitudinal
  • Parent/Guardian play
  • Play with other adult
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Blair, C. et al. (2007) Relating Effortful Control, Executive Function, and False Belief Understanding to Emerging Math and Literacy Ability in Kindergarten (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This study examined the role of self-regulation in emerging academic ability in one hundred and forty-one 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income homes. Measures of effortful control, false belief understanding, and the inhibitory control and attention-shifting aspects of executive function in preschool were related to measures of math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Results indicated that the various aspects of child self-regulation accounted for unique variance in the academic outcomes independent of general intelligence and that the inhibitory control aspect of executive function was a prominent correlate of both early math and reading ability. Findings suggest that curricula designed to improve self-regulation skills as well as enhance early academic abilities may be most effective in helping children succeed in school.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2007
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
78
Page/s:
647-663
Synonyms:
  • Academic outcomes
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literacy
  • Longitudinal
  • Numeracy
  • Pre-academic skills
  • Socio-economic background
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Bodrova, E. et al. (2007) Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education (Book)

Abstract:

As the only text of its kind, this book provides in-depth information about Vygotsky's theories, neo-Vygotskians' findings, and concrete explanations and strategies that instruct teachers how to influence student learning and development.  Key changes to this edition include a new chapter on dynamic assessment, separate and expanded chapters on developmental accomplishments of infants and toddlers, preschool/kindergarten, and primary grades and on supporting those accomplishments, and elaborations of Vygotsky's ideas from neo-Vygotskians from Russia.   FEATURES:   Written for the beginning student, the book provides a clear discussion of Vygotskian principles including...a historical overview and a complete chapter on the "Zone of Proximal Development," (ZPD). Each section of the book builds on the other...framework, strategies, and applications of the Vygotskian approach. The work of Vygotsky is compared in a fair and balanced way with the work of Piaget. Examples and activities have been class-tested in a variety of classroom environments including a Head Start program, private preschool, and in the Denver Public Schools.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2007
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Tags:

Bodrova, E. et al. (2013) Play and Self-Regulation: Lessons from Vygotsky (Journal Article)

Abstract:

The authors consider the analysis of the literature on play research by Lillard and others in the January 2013 "Psychological Bulletin," an analysis that questioned the prevailing assumption of a causal relationship between play and child development, especially in the areas of creativity, reasoning, executive function, and regulation of emotions. The authors regard these connections as critical for teachers in early-childhood classrooms and for other advocates of child play. They claim that the conclusions of Lillard and her coauthors place these professionals in a difficult position because they already face sharp pressure to replace play with academic activities. The authors suggest that the difficulty researchers have in linking play to development partly results from a failure to account for both cognitive and noncognitive developments across a complex trajectory. To help see the problem more clearly, they argue for a return to the Vygotskian and post-Vygotskian theories that differentiate between immature and mature play. The authors then describe their creation, an observational tool based on such theories, that helps researchers and practitioners judge the quality of pretend play.

Date:
January 2013
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
6
Page/s:
111-123
Synonyms:
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literature review
  • Metacognition
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Diamond, A. et al. (2007) Preschool Program Improves Cognitive Control (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Cognitive control skills important for success in school and life are amenable to improvement in at-risk preschoolers without costly interventions.

Date:
January 2007
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
318
Page/s:
1387-1388
Synonyms:
  • Academic outcomes
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literacy
  • Pretend play
  • Socio-economic background
  • Working memory
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:

Eberhart, J. (2018) Play Piece: Play, Self-regulation, Executive Function and the Classroom Context (Blog Post)

Abstract:

How and why do playful approaches to teaching support the development of self-regulation?

Read our whole Play Piece here.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2018
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
Synonyms:
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:

Hoffmann, J. et al. (2012) Pretend play, creativity, and emotion regulation in children. (Journal Article)

Abstract:

The aim of this study was to examine relationships among pretend play, creativity, emotion regulation, and executive functioning in children. Pretend play processes were assessed using the Affect in Play Scale (APS), which measures children's cognitive and affective processes, such as organization of a plot or use of emotions. Sixty-one female participants, in kindergarten through fourth grade, were assessed using the APS to measure pretend play ability, a divergent thinking task (the Alternate Uses Test), a storytelling task to assess creativity, a measure of executive functioning (the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, Short Form; WCST-64), and parent report on the Emotion Regulation Checklist (ERC). Using correlational analyses, pretend play significantly related to creativity as measured by divergent thinking and storytelling, and related to emotion regulation. Affect expression in play was significantly related to affect expression in storytelling suggesting cross-situational stability. Divergent thinking ability was significantly related to creativity in storytelling. In general the magnitudes of the correlations were of medium effect size. No significant relationships were found with executive functioning. The results of this study support theories that suggest play, creativity, and emotion regulation are linked.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2012
Volume:
6
Page/s:
175-184
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Correlational
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Social-emotional
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Hofmann, W. et al. (2012) Executive functions and self-regulation (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Self-regulation is a core aspect of adaptive human behavior that has been studied, largely in parallel, through the lenses of social and personality psychology as well as cognitive psychology. Here, we argue for more communication between these disciplines and highlight recent research that speaks to their connection. We outline how basic facets of executive functioning (working memory operations, behavioral inhibition, and task-switching) may subserve successful self-regulation. We also argue that temporary reductions in executive functions underlie many of the situational risk factors identified in the social psychological research on self-regulation and review recent evidence that the training of executive functions holds significant potential for improving poor self-regulation in problem populations.

Date:
January 2012
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
16
Page/s:
174-180
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literature review
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Hughes, C. et al. (2009) How do families help or hinder the emergence of early executive function? (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This chapter describes longitudinal findings from a socially diverse sample of 125 British children seen at ages two and four. Four models of social influence on executive function are tested, using multiple measures of family life as well as comprehensive assessments of children's executive functions. Our results confirm the importance of maternal scaffolding for young children's executive functions, but they also suggest positive effects of observational learning and adverse effects of disorganized and unpredictable family life; however, no support was found for an association between executive function and general positive characteristics of family interactions.

Date:
January 2009
Volume:
2009
Page/s:
35-50
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Longitudinal
  • Self-regulation
  • Socio-economic background
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline: