Executive Function and the Developing Brain

by Page Pless, December 7, 2015

On December 7, 2015, Dr. Philip David Zelazo, from the Institute of Child Development (ICD), University of Minnesota, addressed the growing interest in executive function in childhood over the last 15 years from scientists, parents, educators, mental health professionals, economists and policy makers. His public lecture titled “Executive Function and the Developing Brain, Promoting Healthy Development” delved into the definition, history, case studies and research supporting the importance of executive function.

Executive function is the name for the cognitive abilities that children and adults use in goal-directed behavior to monitor and control thoughts, actions and emotions. Executive function emerges during the early years of a child’s life and fully matures in early adulthood, starting with rudimentary executive function skills such as pausing, paying attention, thinking flexibly, keeping information in mind. Research shows executive function predicts learning achievement and adaptability, and plays a strong role in a child’s success in their early years and throughout their life.

Executive function skills are situated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which works in concert with other parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop and is responsible for our ability to exchange information across the high-level areas of the brain so that our behavior can be guided by our accumulated knowledge.

The notion of executive function is derived from observations of the consequences of damage to the prefrontal cortex. Zelazo mentioned the case involving a railroad worker named Phineas Gage, who in the mid-1800s, suffered an accident while laying down railroad tracks and a tamping iron was blown through the front part of his head. He survived but with significant changes to his character. He was fitful, irreverent, distractible and hyperactive.

Zelazo also described a study involving a nurse who suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex from a stroke. During an interview with this patient in the early 1900’s, French neurologist and researcher, François L’hermitte, observed the nurse used objects with which she had a strong association. L’hermitte arranged medical props in his office, such as a blood-pressure gauge and a tongue depressor. Instead of coming in and having a conversation with L’hermitte, the patient picked up and used the tongue depressor on Dr. L’hermitte. Her behavioral impairment, referred to now as impaired executive function or “dysecutive syndrome,” included difficulties with decision-making, planning, cognitive flexibility, inhibition of competing responses, and monitoring her own actions.

The research of Dr. Zelazo and colleagues shows executive function in children can be improved through direct training and intervention, especially in the preschool years before they enter kindergarten, when there is a window of opportunity to build good habits and when the brain is malleable and receptive to environmental circumstances. When adults continually challenge a child’s skills, it increases the opportunities to develop a child’s executive function.  

Children who grow up in poverty, however, can have less well-developed executive function. This, in turn, can lead to challenges in the classroom, such as an inability to sit still and concentrate on learning. Zelazo teamed up with fellow ICD professors Stephanie Carlson and Ann Masten to work with homeless children in Minneapolis. Zelazo, Carlson, and Masten are researching whether providing guided reflection to preschoolers on their actions will help them better develop their executive function. They designed an intervention that focused on teaching children mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Mindfulness is a practice of intentionally paying attention to moment by moment sensations and thoughts without judgment. Practice through doing mindfulness activities is a way to change a child’s perception and adopt changes.

Children, ages 4-5 years old in Dr. Zelazo’s study were taught, with their parents’ help, to pay attention to their breathing and feelings, and manage those feelings in constructive ways by doing fun activities such as blowing out a candle. The intentional actions necessary to blow out a candle encouraged the children to slow down, breath and relax. In another activity, children became more aware of their bodies by placing a stuffed animal on their tummies and rocking the animal to sleep, with the rise and fall of their tummy as they breathe.

To determine whether changes in the children’s behavior and achievement was due to the mindfulness intervention, Dr. Zelazo and colleagues conducted a study with students in underserved communities, where half of the students participating in the study received lessons in literacy only. Analyses showed that all of the children experienced positive changes in understanding thoughts and feelings of others, and improved executive function. In addition, the mindfulness and reflection activities improved the literacy skills of the children exposed to both, combining emotion regulation and adapted mindfulness.

Dr. Zelazo’s executive function research compliments the research in self-regulation and effortful control in children that Dr. Liliana Lengua, professor of psychology and director of the UW Center for Child and Family Well-being, has spent years studying. Effortful control is the ability to adjust one’s motivations, emotions, and energy to deal with the challenges of daily life. Research suggests that these skills help children navigate social and emotional situations and serve as buffers from the effects of stress and adversity.  Like the children in Dr. Zelazo’s study, the children in Dr. Lengua’s study that faced the most adversity—those raised in disadvantaged families—often lagged in developing effortful control, with those delays continuing into adulthood.

When Dr. Lengua’s research team observed parents interacting with their children, certain parent behaviors were related to better development of effortful control in their children, showing that parenting matters. “Once we took those parenting behaviors into account, the effects of poverty on children’s development of effortful control became nonsignificant—near zero, in fact,” says Lengua.

Based on these findings, Lengua developed a parenting program to share these effective parenting behaviors more broadly. The program has been piloted in two early learning settings serving low-income families, with a larger pilot in the works. “There are other parenting programs that address difficult behaviors,” says Lengua, “but this one is designed explicitly to help parents support and promote their child’s self-regulation development, which will hopefully serve as a protective factor as those children navigate through school and challenging situations.”

Another UW study by the Center for Child and Family Well-being, led by Dr. Kate McLaughlin, a UW assistant professor of psychology published in August 2015 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, is thought to be the first study looking at whether emotion control benefits children who have been abused or exposed to other types of trauma. What if those kids could regulate their emotions? Could that better help them cope with difficult situations? Would it impact how effective therapy might be for them?

Dr. Kate McLaughlin and a team of researchers sought to address those questions by studying what happens in the brains of maltreated adolescents when they viewed emotional images, and then tried to control their responses to them. The researchers found that with a little guidance, maltreated children have a surprising ability to regulate their emotions. “They were just as able as other children to modulate their emotional responses when they were taught strategies for doing so,” said Dr. Kate McLaughlin, a UW assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author. “That’s very encouraging.”

Given the right tools, whether it is executive function skills being studied by Dr. Philip David Zelazo, or skills in self-regulation and effortful control in children led by Dr. Liliana Lengua, or whether the brains of maltreated children benefit from emotion control being studied by Dr. Kate McLaughlin, research is showing helping children learn executive function skills and emotion regulation is making a difference in the lives of children. The research from the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, and from the Center for Child and Family Well-being at the University of Washington is all really promising and very exciting.

Click here for more infromation about Dr. Philip Zelazo’s work.

Click here to read more about Dr. Liliana Lengua’s work.

Click here to read more about Dr. Kate McLaughlin work.

To learn more about the parenting and mindfulness training currently offered at the Center for Child and Family Well-Being, please visit our events page