Just as the top executive at a busy, successful company keeps everything organized and running smoothly, executive function skills allow us to focus, plan, accomplish tasks, control impulses, and manage emotions. It is a set of cognitive skills with a big job—to help us effectively and efficiently understand, control and use the constant streams of information running through our brains.
Executive function is not present at birth, but babies are born with the potential to acquire it. Although it develops into adulthood, experts agree that ages 0-5 are a critical time for laying its foundation. This time in your baby’s life is fertile ground because her brain is being shaped by her experiences.
Before we explore ways to support your baby’s executive function development, let’s take a closer look at what it is.
The Three Pillars of Executive Function
Executive function includes three types of interrelated brain function:
- Working Memory — The ability to keep and use information.
- Mental Flexibility — The ability to sustain attention or shift gears.
- Self-Control — The ability to prioritize choices, resist temptations, and think before speaking or acting.
These three functions work together to help us:
- Initiate — Begin tasks and generate ideas.
- Plan — Map out how to accomplish present and future tasks.
- Organize — Place objects in our physical space in a functional way.
- Be Self-Aware & Self-Monitoring — Adjust our behavior to fit a situation, and understand the effects of our behavior.
- Control Emotions — Use rational thought to manage our emotions.
Supporting Your Baby’s Developing Executive Function
Laying the groundwork for executive function will give your baby the best shot at mental and physical health, healthy relationships, and success in school and the workplace. Research has even shown that executive function is a better predictor of academic success than IQ or knowledge of letters or numbers.
Here’s what you can do:
- Create and Maintain a Reliable, Supportive Relationship with Your Baby
Consistent, warm responsiveness and interactions are a hallmark of a healthy childhood and set a baby up for success in every area of her life, including executive function. Your relationship with your baby not only helps shape her brain, it allows you to model executive function skills like how to behave in different situations and cope with stress.
- Encourage Pretend Play
Pretend (or symbolic) play gives your baby endless opportunities to practice executive function skills as she organizes objects, plans and completes tasks, and explores behavioral and emotional themes.
- Support Age-Appropriate Independence
When your baby is ready, allow her to do things like feed herself, put on her clothes, and help put away toys.
- Play Games
The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child suggests these executive function-promoting games for babies ages 6-18 months. You can find other fun activities in the cognitive development section of our BabySparks app.
Peek-a-Boo, Pat-a-Cake and the like support working memory and self-control.
These exercise working memory. You can start with simple versions, like covering a toy with a blanket and letting your baby find it, and make them more challenging as she matures.
Showing your baby how to do something and waiting for her to copy you involves attention, working memory, and self-control. This starts simply with actions like waving goodbye, and becomes more complex as she grows and copies actions like placing rings on a stacking pole.
Towards the end of this age range, you can engage your baby in role-play, like sweeping the floor or feeding a stuffed animal. This is the beginning of symbolic play and exercises working memory, self-control, and selective attention.
Fingerplays like Itsy-Bitsy Spider support self-control and working memory.
Before your baby can actually speak, you can “talk” to her by answering her coos or babbling, mirroring her facial expressions, or labeling things she points at. All of this exercises her attention, working memory, and self-control.
By nurturing your baby’s executive function development in these early years and beyond, you will set her up with life and learning skills that will serve her in every area of her life.