Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Difficulties with Executive Function in Childhood Development

Executive Function and Childhood Development

A while back, we presented a blog called What is Executive Function? Montessori Perspectives. In that article, we discussed that executive function involves working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility. Executive function is important for cognitive, social, emotional, and moral development. It helps us understand, internalize, and fulfill the steps required to solve a problem:

  • Recognize a problem.
  • Make a plan to solve the problem.
  • Execute the plan.
  • Evaluate effectiveness.

Executive Function and Childhood Development


Executive functions are controlled by the frontal cortex, one of the last regions of the brain to mature. We reach developmental milestones related to executive function by the time we are 1 year old, during early childhood, and during puberty. Some development in the brain continues well into the 20s and even 30s when myelination occurs, which is the process of forming electrical sheathes around the axons of the neurons.

With all this continuous, long-range development going on, we must understand that difficulty with executive function is not only normal, it is to be expected as the brain continues to grow.


Executive function impairment is often diagnosed in childhood and can be attributed to a range of causes from genetic factors, to head and brain injury, to environmental stress. Children with learning and/or behavioral disorders such as autism, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or conduct disorders are more likely to have difficulty with executive functions. For example, they may know the rules of the classroom and may be able to verbalize them, but they can find adhering to the rules especially challenging. Or, they may have difficulty generalizing or transferring information from one part of the curriculum to another.

Children with autism and ADHD often experience difficulty regulating their thoughts, actions, and emotions. They can also have trouble planning for the future. Autistic children often have difficulty with cognitive flexibility, the ability to use a previously learned concept in a new context.

Chronic behavior problems may also be attributed to poor executive function. Children who continue to bite, hit, kick, or scratch beyond the toddler years are not simply more aggressive than others; they may have difficulty controlling their impulses. They may not be able to plan ahead and become aggressive when situations are not to their liking or within their control. These children may be able to tell you the rules of social conduct, but they are unable to make the connection in real time and to their own situations. They also have difficulty evaluating the effects of their own behavior. They understand that the last time they kicked their friend on the playground they got in trouble, but it does not stop them from repeating the behavior over and over again. They simply cannot anticipate the negative consequence of their behavior.

As Montessori educators and parents, it is important to note that executive function is not linked to intelligence. Children who are very intelligent can still struggle with executive function.


This can sometimes be challenging for adults as we may feel that children are not living up to their potential and our expectations may be higher due to their intelligence.


The question, therefore, is can we train and teach executive function skills? The answer is, yes! You can grow your brain by using it! Changes in the brain are experience dependent and happen over a lifetime. In our next two blogs, we will focus on how we can help children who have challenges with executive function succeed in the Montessori environment.

Works Cited
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. June 18, 2012. “InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning.” Online video clip. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efCq_vHUMqs&feature=youtu.be
Zelazo, D. P. About Kids Health. “Executive function part five: What happens when the development of executive function goes awry?” http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/En/News/Series/ExecutiveFunction/Pages/Executive-Function-Part-Five-What-happens-when-the-development-of-executive-function-goes-awry.aspx

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

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