Executive Function, Developmentally Speaking
In our increasingly complex social and cultural environments, making sound decisions about goals, plans, and time management has become more and more crucial. The iPhone and Android app stores have entire categories devoted to tools designed to help us organize our lives, coordinate our schedules, and communicate more efficiently. For educators and parents, teaching our children how to practice developing these Executive Function skills has become very important.
It is important to remember that the brain areas underlying these skills (largely Prefrontal Cortex) take a full two decades to mature and develop completely, and are among the last to come completely online. By comparison, the areas involved in social-emotional reasoning (not regulation) are almost completely mature in adolescents (around age 15 for most), which may be one reason we observe risky behavior during these years – well-developed social concerns paired with immature planning/impulse-control sounds to me like a recipe for trouble.
One way we can help students develop these important skills a bit more quickly and completely is to work with them to create structures that help support this kind of thinking, as well as low stakes opportunities to practice. Executive Function skills include task-switching, planning, flexible thinking, postponing reward, and prioritizing (and plenty more sets and subsets of skills – this is just one way to slice it). There are enormous differences in children’s capacities for these behaviors that track along a predictable developmental path, with major milestones around ages 4-5, 7-8, 12-13, 15, and 20-22. That means when we create expectations and systems for accountability, we need to take developmental stages into account so that we are pushing children to learn skills that they are developmentally capable of, rather than setting expectations that are either too simple or impossible for children that age.
For example, we would not expect a 5 year old to be able to engage in a task that asks them to create a plan to achieve a complex, long-term goal over a period of weeks or months. We would, however, expect that child to be able to transition from one task to another without great emotional distress, as long as we provide sufficient notice and support. For a 15 year old, we would expect them to move from task to task with far less notice/support, and also to begin to demonstrate the ability to break complex tasks into prioritized lists of actions they will take to accomplish their goal.
At Gesher, we have begun to design explicit curricular goals in the area of Executive Function, and are engaging faculty, parents, and of course students in partnership around holding children accountable for demonstrating age-appropriate growth and development in these skills. We believe that spending some regular time practicing these skills will be immeasurably helpful in preparing our students for success in future academic and social settings throughout their lives. A Jewish Day School is wonderfully suited to this type of education, as even our youngest students have the opportunity to transition not only between activities, but also between English and Hebrew language settings on a daily basis.