Currently, there is a lot of interest and research about a coordinated brain process called executive functioning. It seems that executive functioning has a lot to do with our life’s achievements. And, while it is a long-term building process of the brain, the foundational components are developed early in life. As parents and teachers, it is helpful for us to look ahead at the capacities our children will need for success.
So, what is executive functioning?
It is a set of skills and abilities rooted in the brain that begins developing early in life. Executive functioning is like the brain’s switchboard that allows us to:
1. Regulate our focus, attention, and emotional reactions.
2. Hold in memory, evaluate, and manipulate lots of information at the same time.
3. Solve problems and shift gears as needed to achieve goals
And with practice, it gets better and better.
Fortunately for parents and teachers alike, everyday activities, language-rich environments, and responsive caregiving assists infants, and toddlers to build this brainpower.
Attention and Regulation
Think of newborn, Lucas. His capacities to regulate and control his physical actions are extremely limited. Mom wraps Lucas in a blanket to make it easier for him to focus his eyes on her.
With time and practice, Lucas will develop the ability to control the movement of his body with purpose. As he is better able to control the actions of his body, his mom will change the ways in which she supports his ability to manage his attention and internal experiences.
Similarly, when Isabella’s father responds to her distress, he is helping to regulate the things that Isabella is too young to do on her own. With countless experiences of feeding, changing and playing, Isabella will find solutions to comfort, pleasure, and attention.
Isabella’s and Lucas’s brains are laying the foundation for executive functioning. The cues and scaffolding for success they receive from adults, directly improves the efficiencies of their brains. The faster parents and teachers respond, the better we support baby’s skills with internal regulation. Studies show that infants, who are responded to quickly, cry less.
As toddlers, Lucas and Isabella will learn to focus their attention and intentions! They will work to fit blocks into various holes in shape sorters and persist in stacking blocks. They will develop the regulation and attention that allows them to sit at a circle and listen to read-aloud stories, to wait for turns, manage frustration and share their joys.
The capacity to remember is an unfolding process during the first few years of life. The hallmark of memory development in infants is object permanence, marking the connection of neurons that allow the baby to know that something exists even when she can’t see it.
As Ethan’s parents know well, between 10-16 months, he made a fuss every time his parents left the room. His memory allows him to know that mom and dad were still there and he wanted them to come back! Previous to this development, when his parents were out of sight, they were also out of mind.
During the second year, Ethan will also learn that his parents return. He will begin to remember the order of the day. And, become interested in learning about and remember many things.
Again, think of the hungry baby. Hunger is the reason for the infant’s fussiness. Feeding is the action that has the effect of stopping the baby’s crying. A quick response helps the baby build confidence.
As Ava tries to put on her coat or designs a plan to get cookies that are out of reach, she is also practicing problem-solving. During these everyday challenges, she is learning how to break down problems, set goals, gain information, and organize her knowledge.
Infants and toddlers will try many strategies, most of which will be unsuccessful. Errors are just as informative as learning moments as are successes.
So, next time you watch as a baby tries to move her body towards a toy, or a toddler, on his tiptoes, stretches his arms towards the book, pause and notice what brain capacities are firing! When we scaffold children’s successes, allowing them to solve problems that they are capable of figuring out, we are supporting their growth towards being a productive and successful member of our society.