How do executive functions develop during the first couple of decades of life?
Executive functions are controlled by our frontal lobe. It controls our attention, working memory, planning, organizing, and impulses. The frontal lobe is the last part of our brain to develop, which is why older children and adolescents struggle with executive functions. Their frontal lobe is still fairly immature and won't be mature until their mid-twenties or so. It takes a while for the frontal lobe to develop and for these executive functions to fully mature.
In the first few decades of life, executive functions tend to be fairly slow to develop. Therefore, we have to be sure that we don't have too high of expectations for children regarding their executive functions. We want to support them, we want to scaffold them, we want to help them to develop those skills, but we shouldn't expect them to have fully mature executive functions. It's not realistic to expect that of children.
Executive functions begin to slowly emerge towards the end of the first year of life. We see it, for example, in anticipatory looking, where a child might hear a sound, and they look towards it because they know that something's coming. They hear the door, and they look to see that Mom is coming home from work. That's anticipatory looking. That is the beginning of executive functions.
We see some significant changes during the preschool years. Three and four-year-olds are showing dramatic increases in their executive functions. They're learning rules that they will use to guide their behavior, they're thinking about their past, and they're starting to plan for the future. They're excited about a friend's birthday party, and they may start thinking about what birthday present they will get their friend and what outfit they are going to wear. That's actually thinking about the future. But, at this age, they still have a lot of difficulty with delaying gratification. They will be dipping into that Halloween candy if you're not looking, for example. They're going to have some difficulty with impulse control.
Then we see major increases in all areas of executive functions from ages eight to 11. At this age, children are much better at controlling their attention, knowing how long they can pay attention to something, and blocking out distractors. They are starting to handle some delayed gratification. We see the beginning stages of problem-solving, planning, and shifting attention between tasks. All of that is really starting to develop pretty dramatically in middle childhood.
After age 11, there are smaller increases. They're still improving in executive functions, but it's not as dramatic of a change. It's more of a slow and steady development during adolescence until about the mid-twenties.
This ATE is an excerpt from the course, Executive Functioning: Targeting Students' Skills through an Interdisciplinary Lens, presented by Katrina Fulcher-Rood, Pamela Schuetze and Kathy Doody.