From the Prevent Child Abuse New York Blog – May 23, 2011
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:
- Programs aimed at fostering emerging executive function skills e.x. the ability to retain and use information, focus and resist distractions
- Programs that train and support teachers in effective classroom management strategies e.x. rewarding positive student behavior, redirecting negative behavior
- 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.