Research shows us that executive functions are more important than a little one’s IQ in terms of setting them up for that first day in the classroom. From the early infant’s control of cries to the higher-level control exerted to make plans and solve problems, our understanding of how executive functions develop in the first years of life has advanced enormously in recent years thanks to the creative use of neuropsychological assessment, neuroimaging methods and other lab-based tasks, such as eye-tracking.

“Executive functions” is a term used to refer to an array of skills that are important for regulating our behaviour in everyday life. Neuropsychologist Peter Anderson condenses these inter-related skills into four main domains in his developmental model; attentional control, cognitive flexibility, goal setting, and information processing.

These domains mature at different rates both on a brain-based level and a behavioural level with attentional control emerging first and laying down the foundations for an increasingly complex system of executive functions to develop over the first couple decades of life.

The developing scholar

This metropolis of connections evolving on a brain-based level develops in parallel to society’s expectations of just how well and how much we can control and manage ourselves on a behavioural level. The pre-schooler’s hand is held and safely led through the educational system to college via a general scaffold system, which means they can grow and develop to do things more independently over time.

Think about a child’s exposure to mathematics. They are first exposed to colourful blocks to learn basic number concept and slowly work up to complex theorems and equations. In a similar way, for executive functions, a pre-schooler is not expected to remember their homework, navigate a campus, get to class on time, juggle school, work, family, and social time – but a college student is.

“What happens when the development of executive functions starts to go awry for a pre-schooler?”

The issue is: What happens when the development of executive functions starts to go awry for a pre-schooler? If they struggle to get through a basic multi-step task that the teacher asks of them at this early stage? How will they survive when they land on college campus, if they arrive at all?

Detecting difficulties

Teachers can find it hard to recognise and support children’s executive difficulties in the classroom context. It is challenging to detect these difficulties as it requires breaking down multi-step processes in a complex environment to establish what exactly is going wrong. For example, in a classroom of children a teacher may interpret an individual child as disruptive when they repeatedly fail to follow basic instructions such as “take out your writing book, turn to page 4, and let’s start with the second section to practice the letter D”.

But there might be different reasons for this “disruptive” behaviour. A child with attentional control difficulties may fail to complete this series of three steps if they get distracted by their classmates during the delivery of the instruction or before they reach the final step. A child with poor cognitive flexibility may find it tough to hold in mind the details of the latter steps. A child who has difficulties with goal setting may find it difficult to plan a sensible course of action when faced with a series of steps. Whereas, a child with poor information processing may take longer to fully soak up the instructions.

Translating neuropsychological research into real world settings

Despite the development of new assessments, teachers still face barriers to recognising and supporting children’s executive difficulties. So how can we better translate neuropsychological findings into the classroom environment? I am currently working collaboratively with other researchers and teachers in order to address this question.

“How can we better translate neuropsychological findings into the classroom environment?”

One barrier to the translation of an identified executive difficulty into individualised support for that child relates to the design of assessments. Many existing neuropsychological assessments successfully indicate that a child is struggling with a specific executive skill, but do not inform teachers on the level and type of scaffolding a child might require to independently complete multi-step tasks successfully. Tasks in everyday life require the integration of executive functions, unlike the artificial separation of these domains that often occurs in neuropsychological assessments.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I developed anecological task of executive function for pre-schoolers that aims to make individual feedback more translatable into everyday supports that teachers can put into action to address executive difficulties. The multi-step task mirrors an everyday task that the child might encounter in the classroom. It asks the child to create a picture using a visual recipe book.

“Tasks in everyday life require the integration of executive functions, unlike the artificial separation of these domains that often occurs in neuropsychological assessments.”

The task is child-led, is not time limited, and is scored based on the number and type of cues required. In this way, it can be established whether the child struggles to move from one step to the next, whether they find it challenging to remember instructions, if they find it difficult to maintain focus, or if they just require more time. The cues are delivered in a structured way for each step, in line with Lev Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding.

This type of task helps us to better communicate to teachers what support is needed to promote an individual child’s executive functions, when this support may be needed, and importantly, how much support they require.

Executive skills are crucial for every child in the learning environment. If we can develop more ways to support teachers to promote these skills at this early stage, then we can help foster confident and empowered little learners.


The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.

The author of this blog post, Michelle Downes, was among the presenters at the conference.

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