The Ordinary Magic of Executive Functions

The children got to the edge of forest and found themselves at the top of huge cliff. Behind them, they heard the dragon.

What could they do?  Should they jump? Turn around and face the dragon? Hide in the bushes?

The girl reached for the magic leaf, and as she did, she remembered that she had some bubbles in her pocket. Quickly she blew a giant bubble, grabbed her friend’s hand and leapt in.


Giving children lots of time to come up with their own problems and to solve them in the context of play also supports the development of a related protective factor for resilience, executive functions.

Executive functions (EF) have been called the “air traffic control system of the brain” by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. They are a cluster of functions based primarily in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for what we often call “thinking.”

Executive functions include

  • attentional control,
  • cognitive flexibility,
  • inhibition,
  • initiation,
  • metacognition,
  • organization,
  • planning,
  • response to feedback,
  • self-regulation,
  • shifting attention, and…(drum roll please!)
  • working memory

WOAH! How are we supposed to keep all THAT in mind!?! (Unless we have really good working memory!)

Dr. Adele Diamond, a leading researcher on executive functions in children, can help! She’s identified three primary EFs. These lay the foundation for other higher-order thinking skills and impact all areas of cognitive and social functioning. According to Diamond, the three primary processes involved with EF are

  • inhibitory control (related to self-regulation),
  • working memory (being able to keep relevant information in mind while working on tasks), and
  • cognitive flexibility (being able to see things from different perspectives and find multiple solutions to a problem).

MUCH more manageable!!!!

These processes develop in early childhood, but continue to develop throughout middle childhood, adolescence, and into early adulthood. “Adulting” things like being able to hold a job, maintain a relationship, and figuring out what to do when the car won’t start are just a few of the things that have their roots in executive functions.

But our EFs are also responsible for the skills involved in, for example, inventing driverless cars, analyzing soil samples brought back from Mars and fixing lunch for 20 preschoolers while singing “Baby Shark” and answering the phone!

Executive functions are central to school success, life success and… to resilience!

Like other aspects of resilience, EFs develop through engaging experiences and interactions. While research is still uncovering the kinds of specific experiences that may be most conducive to their development, pretend play and storytelling have both been identified as strategies that promote EFs by The Center on the Developing Child..read all about it their Activities Guide!

Both make believe and storytelling target all three of the EFs (cognitive flexibility, self-regulation, and working memory)!  AND… because  both involve the use of language and symbols, they are already powerful allies in our work with emergent literacy.

Think of a group of preschoolers playing house. They are using working memory to hold in mind who is the mother, the granny, the baby, and the dog. Each child also has to use working memory to maintain specific aspects of her role: the “dog” has to remember to always crawl on hands and knees, to bark (or, “bark talk”) when spoken to, and not to use her hands when eating from her bowl.

Cognitive flexibility comes into play when they decide to have pizza for dinner: and there is none. Do they switch to the plastic burgers and fries that are in the fridge? Or do they use the plates in the dramatic play area and decide these are “personal pan pizzas?” Or, does one of them decide to retrieve construction paper for the art area, and make a large paper pizza that they can all enjoy?

Inhibitory control, or self-regulation, is used in make believe play, as well. The child who has to recall that she is a dog and must eat from a bowl without using her hands is using working memory; stopping herself from reaching for the “pizza” that is on the table requires inhibitory control.

Self-regulation is also at the heart of resolving the many conflicts that may arise as children are co-constructing a story. Do I insist that I am the Mother and that I am going to do the cooking, or do I let Granny do the cooking, like she wants to? What if I decide I don’t want to be the dog, and want to be big brother, and they say no, that there isn’t a big brother? Do I stay the dog, and keep the story going, or do I leave and go to the block area?

Decisions like these that occur in the micro-interactions of pretend play are why famed psychologist Lev Vygotsky said that in make- believe, children are “a head taller than themselves.” In other works, they exhibit more mature self-regulation and reasoning skills because they have a strong incentive to keep the story going.

Learn more about these truly magical brain powers in the links below!

Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

This video offers both the science and practical applications of executive function skills, with lots of classroom-related tips!

How Children and Adults Can Build Core Capabilities for Life

Want to know about how EF develop, and the connection between EF and resilience? This video gives an accessible view into this important cluster of skills.

How to Help Children Develop Executive Functions

Leading EF researcher Dr. Adele Diamond offers lots of solid developmental knowledge and no-nonsense tips for parents and teachers on how to support children’s EFs!

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

Great introduction to early brain development that discusses serve and return, stress, and EFs.

This article in Young Children, May 2012, is a fantastic introduction to executive functions by Dr. Deborah Leong and Dr. Elena Bodrova. Their Tools of the Mind curriculum focuses on EF, self-regulation and make believe play. Click on photo to go to article if you don’t have access to NAEYC publications.

Mind in the Making is an organization that promotes “the seven essential life skills” that every child needs, described in the book of the same title by Dr. Ellen Galinsky. These skills are closely aligned with executive function skills. One of the organization’s initiatives promotes the use of children’s literature as a way of developing these skills. Each book in the collection comes with a free downloadable “tip sheet” of ways one of the seven skills can be developed.