EXECUTIVE FUNCTION IS LIKE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL
Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks.
Like all of us, kids have to react to things happening in the world around them while also dealing with worries, temptations, and obligations on their minds.
Think of a child’s brain as a control tower at a busy airport. The planes landing and taking off and the support systems on the ground all demand the controller’s full attention to avoid a crash. Air traffic control helps the child regulate the flow of information, pay attention, plan ahead, and remember and follow rules. Effective mastery of these skills also helps children manage stress and avoid mental collisions along the way.
Executive function skills are necessary for positive and level mental health. They are foundational to learning and can be built throughout childhood and into early adulthood through practice and coaching. Individuals can continue to build executive function skills throughout their lives, but the earlier we invest in these skills, the more effective the outcomes for lifelong health.
HOW WE HELP BUILD AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL SKILLS
Basic executive function skills come online early and continue to develop through adolescence and into our mid-twenties. It’s important to give children of all ages developmentally appropriate opportunities to practise building air traffic control systems. Young children can benefit from playing games where they have to pay attention and follow simple rules, and where they are encouraged to imagine and be creative. Older children will benefit from opportunities to plan activities, solve problems, and resolve conflicts with caregiver support.
Adults encourage air traffic control skills by establishing routines, modelling social behaviour, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection.
We know that brain architecture is built in a bottom-up sequence, with complex circuits built on basic circuits, like a scaffold built level by level. As children develop, caregivers can support this process by guiding children through increasingly more difficult skills based on age and ability.
The Science of Executive Function
The cognitive, social, and emotional capacities that support executive function are intertwined like three strands of a rope: you can’t have one without the others. The development of these three capacities, which occurs largely in the frontal lobe of the brain, relies on interrelated neural circuits to function properly throughout the lifecourse. The interaction of these capacities influences the quality of the experiences we have, driving further development in these domains. In turn, these three capacities provide a foundation for many of the activities that support later child development, such as making friendships, going to school, and learning how to cope with stressful situations.
A person’s emotional health, social competence, and cognitive abilities can create better or worse emotional and social environments in which other abilities are developing as well.
Building a strong foundation in the brain to support later development is key in establishing strong air traffic control skills. However, the process of pruning continues through adolescence, so continuing adult support and coaching is effective and necessary through this period, too—both in strengthening existing skills and in intervening where an individual has not had the opportunity to develop strong air traffic controls.
What Skills Are Involved in Executive Function?
Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are interconnected and cannot develop in isolation from each other.
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 regulate our emotions, set priorities, and resist impulsive actions or responses.