Episode 21 - Executive Function Development with Emma Blakey

This episode was funded by The Wellcome Trust.

Show Notes:

This is the first episode in a series recorded in London! In June 2018 we attended the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction conference (or, more simply, EARLI) for the special interest group on Neuroscience and Education (@EarliSIG22). While there, we recorded live interviews with teachers and researchers. First up is Dr. Emma Blakey!


Emma (@EmBlakey) is a Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sheffield. Her research is all about investigating how young children learn to control and regulate their behavior. This can be very difficult to do! Executive functioning develops slowly throughout childhood, so young kids are having to learn how to take turns and delay their gratification.

What is executive functioning?

Executive function is the technical term that psychologist use to describe how we regulate and control our behavior. It's an umbrella term explaining a set of different skills we use to control our behvior:

  1. Working memory - allows children to maintain and process information in mind

  2. Inhibitory control - suppress in appropriate but automatic responses (like wanting to eat a whole chocolate cake but resisting so there is enough to share)

  3. Cognitive flexibility - allows us to switch our attention and behavior in line with different goals or changes in the environment

How does executive function develop?

Prefrontal Cortex - "BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Sciences, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan."

Prefrontal Cortex - "BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Sciences, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan."

Slowly! They don't fully mature until late adolescents. But there are rapid improvements in executive function during the preschool years. Specifically, between the ages of 3 and 4 children seem to get much better at regulating their behavior. This has been linked to improvements in language but also to big growth spurts in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that supports our ability to regulate behavior.

How does executive function development relate to education?

Around this time, children are also often transitioning in school. For young kids, ages 2-3, many children are in informal school atmosphere where they are playing most of the day. But around ages 4-5, children are making the transition to formal schooling. Children's ability to regulate their behavior really predicts how they adjust to this formal school environment -- children who have better executive function are better able to regulate their attention and behavior. This is called school readiness. Children who are a little bit younger or have slower executive function development may have a difficult time focusing attention and ignoring distractions in formal school.

Formal school places a lot of heavy demands on children's executive functions. Formal school also often requires children to switch among different tasks. Because this type of switching tends to require a lot a great deal of cognitive flexibility, younger children in general will struggle with switching back and forth more than older children. Children are also required to process more information in formal school, and this places demands on working memory. For example, children often need to remember instructions or particular pieces of information, and this can be quite difficult for young children, or children who struggle with executive function compared to their peers. Emma notes that in addition to younger children having more difficulty with executive function compared to older children, there are also individual differences in executive function development. Not all children are developing at exactly the same pace! So, it is important to remember that for these children, learning in this environment can be quite difficult.

For teachers who want to learn more about working memory, this PDF is a great resource!

If switching is problematic for young kids, what does this mean for interleaving?

Interleaving is one of the six strategies for effective learning, We discussed interleaving in Episode 8 and Episode 9. The main idea behind interleaving is that switching between ideas in order to learn and understand them better. We have a very interesting chat with Emma about the potential downside of interleaving for younger children. The concern Emma has is that children may have a harder time switching and may be impaired in their learning of the skill or material when interleaving. This could even apply to adults who have lower executive functions. More research is needed!

Inattentiveness vs. ADHD

A problem that arises is that inattentiveness is often misdiagnosed as ADHD, where in fact it could be a working memory problem. Emma mentions Dr. Susan Gathercole, who has done a lot of work on how to identify children with ADHD versus working memory problems, who may need different treatments.

Improving executive function

Wouldn't it be great if we could help children with executive function problems by training them to increase their working memory? Unfortunately, however, "brain training" does not work as there is minimal transfer between the tasks people are trained on, and other more relevant tasks (see this guest post on our blog for more on the false promise of brain training, and this post by Megan about lack of transfer in education). Emma has, unfortunately, found the same lack of transfer in her lab with children.

What does Emma want teachers and parents to know?

For a child who is struggling with executive function, scaffold or adapt the environment to accommodate this: keep checklists and instructions written down so that children do not have to keep a lot in their working memory. Provide visual or tactile supports, and minimize distractions to avoid unnecessarily taxing working memory.

For children with good executive functions, one might want to challenge executive functions, such as having children repeat back from a book they're hearing, or playing games that require inhibitory control. However, we are still in the early stages of this research; the science is still evolving - and this is true for all fields.

The big takeaway

Overall, Emma wants us all to be aware of what executive functions are, that they take a while to develop, and to realize young children's limitations - their executive functions just haven't developed yet!

Nuffield Foundation.png

Emma's research into executive functions and learning has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Foundation.

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Episode 22 - Attention and the Classroom with Michael Hobbiss

Episode 20 - Sleep, Learning, and Self Care