Executive Functions… (Part 1: Introduction)

Montessori offers such a full and complete education to children. One prime example of what Montessori offers children can be seen in that the pedagogy naturally supports the development of executive functions. In this post, we’ll take a look at executive functions, touching lightly on some of the ways Montessori classrooms support their development. More to come on executive functions and the classroom as well as how you can bolster the development of executive functions at home.

Executive function is generally thought of as being comprised of three core functions: inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.

Take a moment to notice the child on the left. This child is watching, waiting, not interrupting the classmate who is doing vegetable cutting. There is only one of (almost!) every material in the classroom. This intentional limiting supports the development of self-control.

Inhibitory control can be broken down into self-control and selective attention. Self-control is a person’s ability to intentionally refrain from doing something. Selective attention is the ability to choose to focus on one thing (e.g., talking to one person at a party without being distracted by the other conversations around you).

In a classroom where children are free to move and work either individually or in small groups, selective attention is inherently fostered. The children above are focusing on their work while their classmates are engaged in different work in other parts of the classroom.
Montessori classrooms are full of materials which are attractive to children. Working with materials that are attractive and interesting opens the door to repetition and concentration. Think: selective attention!

Working memory refers to holding information in your mind and doing something with it. This ability is vital for understanding change over time, following direction, reading and doing mental math.

In this child’s work with an Object Box, she reads the words on each slip of paper and matches it to the object it names. In order to read the child must know the sounds of the letters, match the symbol with the sound and remember each sound that came before. This extrapolates into reading sentences and whole stories as well. Reading both requires and builds working memory!

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch from task to task or to take in new information and reformulate your thinking based on the integration of new information (e.g., admit to making mistakes or to being mistaken!).  What a great skill to have as an adult! And how we long for our children to have this ability.

A lesson on the Snap Frame will translate into this child’s ability to care for himself. Most snaps he encounters will not be presented as the ones on this frame are. However, by isolating the task on the dressing frame, the child is given the basic skill of snapping. He will then adapt this skill to snapping a jacket, a bag, a friend’s bracelet. By providing the basic information, we allow for the opportunity of cognitive flexibility.
In an Elementary class meeting there is ample opportunity to listen to classmates and problem solve as a group. Yep, they’re exercising (and strengthening!) their cognitive flexibility.

From these three core functions grow the more complex functions of problem solving, reasoning and planning. It’s easy to see why executive functions are so important not just for success in school but also in life. More to come…

Bibliography: Diamond, Adele. (2014). Executive Functions: Insights into Ways to Help More Children Thrive. Zero to Three Journal, 35(2), 9-17.

Thanks as always to Melinda Smith for sharing her photographic brilliance.