From the Prevent Child Abuse New York Blog – May 23, 2011

How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function

A new joint Working Paper from Harvard’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs explains how a child’s early childhood years are the foundation for developing vital brain functions, what can disrupt this development, and how supporting this important stage in child development benefits them in the future.

Completing most tasks requires the successful collaboration of a number of executive function skills. Scientists break these down into three dimensions:

  • Working Memory: the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our heads over short periods of time.
  • Inhibitory Control: the skill we use to master and filter our thoughts and impulses. This allows us to think before we act, resist distractions and temptations.
  • Cognitive or Mental Flexibility: the capacity to switch gears and adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives. This allows us to apply different rules in different settings.

The study that consisted of extensive Neuroscience and Developmental Research came to the following conclusions:

  • The building blocks of children’s capacities to retain and use new information, focus attention, control impulses, and make plans are acquired during early childhood, but the full range of executive function skills continues to develop into the adolescent years.
  • Executive functioning is distinct and separate (although still crucial to) school readiness and academic success.
  • Children’s executive function skills provide the link between early school achievement and social, emotional, and moral development.
  • Large individual differences in executive functioning at kindergarten entry can have important implications for children’s adjustment and success in and out of school as well as in their relationships with others.
  • A young child’s environment and relationships plays an important role in the development of executive capacities.
  • Adverse environments resulting from neglect, abuse, and/or exposure to violence can impair the development of executive function skills as a result of the disruptive effects of toxic stress on the developing architecture of the brain.
  • There is increasing evidence revealing a close relationship between the roles played by community, school, and family contexts, as well as socioeconomic status, in the development of executive function skills.
  • Children who experience adversity at an early age are more likely to exhibit deficits in executive functioning, suggesting that these capacities are vulnerable to disruption early in the developmental process.

The study suggested several strategies to help foster the development of these important skills in young children. For instance, a “Preschool Intervention” approach introducing an increase in the practice of the following three strategies:

  1. Programs aimed at fostering emerging executive function skills e.x. the ability to retain and use information, focus and resist distractions
  2. Programs that train and support teachers in effective classroom management strategies e.x. rewarding positive student behavior, redirecting negative behavior
  3. Programs that train teachers to model and coach children as their social-emotional skills are developing. Focusing specifically on children’s pro-social behavior, social problem-solving skills, ability to understand and express emotions constructively, and ability to control impulsive behavior and organize themselves to accomplish goals.



  1. Furthermore, his adaptive functioning is less than one percent.Imagine not being able to follow a simple bus route? Imagine not being able to read one paragraph in a book without not having to go back and re-read the paragraph? Imagine having no abstract reasoning… everything must be tangible in order for you to process it.. everything has to be ” right in the moment”. My RADish can’t plan for his future. He has no impulse control

    • So tragic!!!! So it is your awareness that if this child had been given to a healthy mother at birth NONE of this would have happened to him?? Was there alcohol or drug consumption etc during pregnancy with this child?

      • “D”, would have had a chance had he been given up at birth to a healthy mother.He has two half sister’s with his bio mom and neither one of them are successful in school.I’m now under the belief that anyone diagnosed as BPD should be forced to relinquish custody of their newborn. I also think that there should be tangible ways to diagnose young women with this disorder ( CT, MRI)…that way appropriate measures can be taken to ensure that a pregnancy or another “D” disaster is prevented.I know from my experience with RAD that this disorder is ALMOST ALWAYS CAUSED BY SEVERE TRAUMA.We aren’t born with this disorder..it’s the way we are altered

        • Oh this is such an important statement!!!!!!

          can I publish this in my book!!!!!!! (give me a name to put with it, anything yu want)

          scary RIGHT!! so RIGHT!!!!!! OMG

  2. Sadly my stepson suffers with some of these long lasting and debilitating cognitive deficits.He’s 18 and waiting to be discharged from state/ provincial care but protective services aren’t convinced that he has the ” higher level of thinking ” – namely executive functioning- to function on his own. Very devastating news for a young man that should be able to venture out on his own, obtain a driver’s license, follow instructions and be enrolled with a post secondary institution. Unfortunately, “D”, has a working memory index of less than 1 percent.His processing speed is 10 percent, his full scale IQ is 80..as a result of lack of stimulation and emotional neglect “D” has no abstract reasoning, he is unable to follow any instruction, he can’t plan, he’s easily distracted, he can’t process written, auditory or tactile information. He can’t control himself..the damage is incomprehensible. It’s almost like he’s was a passenger in a car wreck and his head went through a the windshield. I was informed by his psychologist that he will never be where he should be, his ADHD is so severe that he’ll always be an apprentice…he’ll never plan, think logically, control himself or follow directions

  3. As a result of his early childhood my step-son-who we both know has been diagnosed as RAD, has severe and debilitating learning disabilities. His working memory is index is less than one percent. His processing speed is 20 percent and his overall IQ is 80. Children’s Aid want to discharge him into the community but his adaptive skills are less than 1 percent as well. He can’t plan, he can’t organize, he can’t follow 2 step directions, he can only do grade 5 math, he’ll never drive

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