Probably the most exciting development in psychology over the last few years is the growing awareness of the importance of executive functions in the brain. This is also an area of immense significance for Montessori practice. But perhaps that significance has not been fully realised. So what exactly is an executive function or EF? Not surprisingly, there is no common definition of an EF nor even a generally agreed list of how many there are. There are even many names for EFs, including ‘cognitive control’ and ‘the supervisory attentional system.’ These last two names do bring out an important feature of EFs, that they are all to do with the control of attention. One should really say self-control actually. Here is the link to Montessori: the self-control of attention is the fundamental basis of concentration and Montessori recognized that concentration was the key to developing normalisation. Normalisation is, of course, the central aim of the whole method. That is why EFs are so important. They underlie the attainment of concentration, so an understanding of EFs will aid the practitioner in supporting the development of concentration and thus normalization.
If you Google ‘executive functions’ you will get over 22 million hits, and there are many competing lists of skills which make up the EF system. However there is general agreement about the basic EFs. The first of these is self-control, the ability to respond to a situation is an aware and socially appropriate way – not just react without consideration, with what you might call a ‘knee-jerk reaction.’ This begins during the first year of life, when a baby, for example, learns not to touch something (like a hot fire) that has been prohibited by the parent. Later in the first year an infant may be able to defer going straight to a desired toy but plans to go round an obstacle to it. This self-control develops especially in the pre-school years, when children can learn, for example, to delay eating a treat if there is a reason to do so, or to follow an arbitrary rule such as the game ‘O’Grady says’ when they do not move, although asked to do so, because O’Grady did not say it.
The second basic EF is working memory. This is the ability to keep in mind various rules or strategies, which may conflict with each other, and which apply to different situations. It is the ability to remember a variety of essential facts (like remembering whether the salt had gone in the pot before interrupting the task to find a child’s missing shoe while comforting the other one who is bored of waiting.) Again this ability begins to develop in the first year when babies begin to develop the concept of object-persistence and two step-plans e.g. move the cloth and then grasp the toy, or, later, pick up the spoon, scoop some food and transfer it to the mouth. As the pre-school years begin the child is learning to handle tasks with conflicting rules, initially simple ones like sorting objects (like buttons go back in the tray, give me the shells) and these abilities improve with practice and as tasks get more complex.
The third fundamental EF is mental flexibility. That is the ability to change course if circumstances change, the ability not to plough on with a tried and tested method, irrespective of the situation. This is a necessary adjunct of he ability to concentrate. As Goldberg (2001) put it “The ability to stay on track is an asset, but being ‘dead in the track’ is not.” To be fair, this is something which many adults find challenging! But even in the first year a baby may be developing the ability to retrieve a toy using different methods (so if reaching fails, try rolling over, then pulling the cloth.) At pre-school children learn that rules are situation-dependant. Take your shoes off at nursery (unless you are going out) but put them on at home, unless it is bedtime. Similarly they learn that actions like shouting, throwing or running are acceptable in some situations but not others. It is also basic to skills like learning to resolve a conflict with another child.
EFs develop steadily from birth and through the very early years. Then there is an explosion of development around the age of four, followed by continuing steady development through adolescence. They reach a peak at around 30 and then there is a gradual, but very gradual, decrease as one ages. However there a number of misconceptions that have built up around the subject.
- It is sometimes assumed that EFs are fundamentally about intellectual skills. Whilst very important for academic learning they are absolutely essential to personal, social and moral development. Many parents send their children into nursery with an explicit aim to have them reading and reckoning as soon as possible. Whilst the Montessori method can deliver this for children who are naturally ready, the fundamentals are consideration for others (the ground rules and the exercises of grace and courtesy, for example) and developing abilities like concentration. Without a foundation of EFs, these features cannot develop.
- Too often, children who cannot keep on task, or who loose control of their emotions, are categorised as ‘bad.’ They are suffering from inadequate EF development. The best route for such children is not any form of punishment, even something as mild as ‘time-out’ but interventions with an explicit focus on EF-development is what is best.
- Finally, and most importantly, EFs do not develop automatically. By 12 months the basic foundations have been laid and it clear that the babies’ environment is crucial. The experiences of responsive caregiving, scaffolding, order and freedom from sustained threats to well-being are all necessary pre-conditions. The last one, security, is particularly significant. What is termed ‘toxic stress’ has a devastating effect on EF development. One very recent study (Bick, 2015) showed that the sort of toxic stress experienced by orphans in Romania led to severe damage of the white matter in the brain. They studied the children over a 12 year period and were able to show that foster-care helped to ameliorate the damage. Efs are linked to the frontal lobes so brain damage will inhibit their development.
One important point is that EFs are not fixed. Some children have more fortunate upbringings than others, but a deficit in EF can be helped by the right activities. So what can we do? There is one important caveat first. Nothing can replace supportive & responsive interactions with adults (and that is with responsive adults i.e. not TV screens). The other point is, that to be effective, adults should “attend to the child’s interests and select activities that are enjoyable, while also allowing the infant to determine how long” (Browne, 2013).
For infants, lap games, hide-and-find games challenge the baby to learn basic rules and manage their own behaviour in relation to those rules. Hiding games generally develop working memory, and these can lead on to quite complex varieties (like hiding a small object under one of a ring of cups on a turntable and then turning it. Activities that involve copying or imitating adult behaviours are good because the infants have to keep track of the adult’s actions (selective attention), remember them, wait for their turn (self-control) and then recall relevant details of what was done (working memory). But perhaps the crucial activity is simply chatting with infants. Starting with following a child’s attention and naming aloud what is holding their attention and moving on to giving simple information. Language acquisition actively promotes EFs and bilingual children usually have better EF skills than monolingual ones.
For toddlers, active games have a positive effect. Even simple games like running to a line and back promote working memory and self-regulation. Fingerplays (or songs with actions) similarly challenge attention, working memory and inhibitory control as the children have to selectively remember and follow the rules. Conversation and storytelling become increasingly important. Initially children can just be encouraged to describe their play, but later sustained shared thinking can be initiated in a small way by questions like “What could you do next?” or “I saw you put the ball into the cup. What else could you have done?” which encourage the child to reflect on their experiences. Developing language skills help children to make plans which they can hold in mind and later follow (working memory & self-control) as well as providing practice in following increasingly complex rules. Also sorting and matching activities become increasingly interesting. Starting with simple sorting by size or colour can lead on to activities where conflicting categories are used (like putting the small objects in the big basket and the larger ones in the small basket) which develops EFs as the child has to inhibit the natural inclination to put like with like.
For pre-schoolers imaginative activities become more important. Children spontaneously role play (which develops EF skills in that they need to hold complex ideas in mind and shape their own behaviours to fit their role) and the adult’s role is to provide plenty of life-experiences to fuel the child’s imagination. At this age children are beginning to work and play co-operatively, often regulating each other’s behaviour – which is itself an important step in self-regulation. Storytelling and movement activities are still very important but now quiet activities become more significant. These should become progressively more complex, so doing a matching activity where the rule changes at intervals. This actively promotes the development of mental flexibility.
One intriguingly simple way of promoting concentration was discussed in an article recently in Plos One, the online research journal. By displaying pictures of natural landscapes they found that concentration was enhanced, which was not replicated by other scenes. This does parallel Montessori’s recommendation to have plain walls with some good quality art reproductions accessible for the children.
In the primary years, children start to enjoy rule-based games but with widely varying levels of interest or skill. Reducing the amount of adult involvement, whilst teaching some techniques for conflict resolution, is a positive approach. Movement and song remain important and beginning to learn a musical instrument will greatly enhance EFs. Guessing games are also popular and require the use of working memory and flexible thinking to hold in mind previous responses and plan the next guess. As the children become older, strategy games, like Chess or Mahjong, challenge both working memory and flexible thinking as the game develops changes in strategy may become necessary.
Montessori activities fulfil so many of these requirements. To take just a few examples: the sensorial materials often involve sorting and, when the basic presentation is mastered, extensions should be creatively introduced to make the material progressively more challenging. Whilst these presentations are demonstrated in silence, there are so many opportunities to talk to children (NOT to teach them!) Self-discipline is obviously a Montessori goal as children are led through the three levels of obedience. All in all, the Montessori method in the twenty-first century could be seen, and promoted, as an EF-enhancement programme.
Bick, J. et al (2015). Effect of early institutionalization and foster-care on long-term white matter development: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Pediatrics published online doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.3212
Bowne, J. (2013). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Accessed from www. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/tools_and_guides/
Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ system: how early experiences shape the development of executive function. Working paper no.11. www.developingchild.harvard.edu
Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain: frontal lobes and the civilized brain. New York: Oxford University Press.