Executive function comprises a set of self-regulating skills that we use every day to guide our thoughts, emotions and behaviors when meeting new challenges and reaching a goal. These skills help us hold the information we need to complete a task, sustain attention and effort, manage our time effectively, and resist inappropriate impulses. It enables us to plan and organize, make decisions and find solutions, assess our progress along the way and adjust if necessary, while managing our emotions. Research (e.g. Miyake et al., 2000) agrees that there are three core executive functions, namely inhibition (thinking before acting), working memory (the ability to hold information needed to complete a task), and cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt to changing conditions). These then constitute the foundation for higher-order executive functions such as reasoning, problem solving and planning (Lunt et al., 2012; Diamond, 2012).
Our ability to self-regulate can be said to lie dormant – with the potential to develop through our experiences and interactions with others. We see the emergence of self-regulation in early infancy, with the full range of abilities continuing to mature gradually through adolescence and into early adulthood. Executive development is prominently associated with the development of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that allows us to reflect and gather information from other brain regions so that we may manage our behavior appropriately. Like the prefrontal cortex, executive function development is highly sensitive and profoundly shaped by our environment and experiences. The Center on the Developing Child (Harvard University) emphasize this by highlighting, “Children build their skills through engagement in meaningful social interactions and activities that draw upon self-regulatory skills at increasingly demanding levels”.
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