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Building the Brain's "Air Traffic Control" System":  How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function

What follows are excerpts from an article on how various early childhood experiences affect school readiness. We have also provided a link to download the original article. This article is quite long and written for professional early childhood educators, but we feel many parents will also be interested. The article is very well written and does not require specialized knowledge to understand, though there are parts, particularly related to educational policy, that many readers may want to skip over.

Click here to download whole article.

Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: 

How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function


Excerpts from: Working Paper 11 – Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University


Executive functioning is distinct from (yet foundational to) school readiness and academic success.  Scientists who study executive function skills refer to them as the biological foundation for school readiness. They argue that strong working memory, cognitive self-control, and attentional skills provide the basis upon which children’s abilities to learn to read, write, and do math are built.


Children’s executive function skills provide the link between early school achievement and social, emotional, and moral development.


A young child’s environment of relationships plays an important role in the development of executive capacities. Environments that foster executive functioning are characterized by adult-child relationships (both within and outside the home) that guide children from complete dependence on adult support to gradual assumption of the “executive” role for themselves. Growth-promoting environments provide substantial “scaffolding” to help young children practice emerging skills before they are expected to perform them on their own.


Children’s social play is believed to be an important practice ground for the development of executive function skills… the skills that help children master many academic tasks are the same as those that help them get along with their peers and be viewed as good classroom citizens.


Contrary to the theory that guides some early education programs that focus solely on teaching letters and numbers, explicit efforts to foster executive functioning have positive influences on instilling early literacy and numeracy skills.


Early education policies that emphasize literacy instruction alone are missing an important opportunity to increase their effectiveness by including attention to the development of executive function skills.

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