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Why Executive Function Matters

Why Executive Function Matters

Why Executive Function Matters

Have you ever picked up your phone, fully intending to check the weather for an upcoming trip, but instead lost twenty minutes scrolling through social media?


Most psychologists would tell you that situations like this are caused by lapses in a crucial cognitive skill set known as executive function.

You’re not alone, of course! Everyone in every stage of life knows what it feels like when their executive function stalls out. But what exactly is executive function and why does it matter? How can parents and teachers help their kids boost their development of such a major life skill? And what does any of it have to do with chess?

In this blog, we’ll strive to answer all your questions about executive function and provide some tips to help your child excel.

What is Executive Function?
For starters, psychologists define executive function not as a single skill, but a set of skills which includes planning, organization, attention, time management, working memory, emotional self-regulation, impulse control, patience, switching between tasks, and adapting to new circumstances.

If we go back to our hypothetical “family trip” scenario, you can see how executive function made that social media “brain fart” possible.

Sure you may have goofed when you tried to check the weather on your phone, but in order to have reached that point in the planning, you probably would have had to save money in the long-term to take the trip in the first place (patience, impulse control). You also would have had to create an itinerary (organization), book accommodations or buy tickets to an attraction (planning), purchase trip-specific items like sunscreen or snow boots based on the weather (adaptation, working memory), and eventually pack the suitcases and remember to turn off the lights as you leave the house (switching tasks, time management).

Why Does Executive Function Matter?
In 2010, Canadian researchers published the results of a longitudinal study which tracked 1,000 participants from birth to age 32. Their data showed that regardless of IQ or socio-economic circumstances, childhood executive function skills predict “...physical health, substance dependence, personal [finance], and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control.” Children who habituate the skills that comprise executive function tend to continue doing so into adulthood.

But a strong foundation for executive functioning in childhood doesn’t only provide personal gains. Kids with strong executive function skills tend to behave in ways that make them better students, classmates, and members of the community.

Because executive function is so important, Story Time Chess’s learning products focus intently on some aspect of it in nearly every chapter. For example, our Level 2 Strategy Bundle combines game planning and sportsmanship lessons that help kids make a plan, see it through, and handle the emotional highs and lows of winning and losing.

How Does Executive Function Develop?
Humans aren’t born with executive function skills, but we begin developing them very early on. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the bedrock of executive function is laid in infancy, when babies first learn to focus their attention on things in their environment. Even simple games like peekaboo can stimulate an infant’s working memory and self-regulation, as they learn to wait expectantly for the surprise to come.

Once kids leave the nursery, their executive functioning skills undergo momentous change between ages three and five. While these skills often develop organically and continue to progress through adolescence and into adulthood, parents, teachers, and caregivers can do a lot to accelerate their children’s development.

How Can I Help?
The experts at Harvard suggest that adults can support the rapid development of executive function that occurs between ages three and five by providing “scaffolding,” such as keeping set daily schedules, showing kids how to segment challenging tasks into smaller steps, and playing games like chess that promote creative thinking, role-playing, rule-following, and impulse control.

In her 2018 Ted Talk, psychologist Sabine Doebel adds that the context of that scaffolding matters too, asserting that kids (and adults) are more likely to flex their executive function skills to their fullest potential when they’re with others who are doing so as well, when they’re surrounded by people they like, and when they set consistent, healthful rewards for themselves for achieving a goal.

Stephanie Carlson, a professor of psychology at McKnight University advises parents to provide rich and varied linguistic input as their children grow, so that they have an abundant word bank to fuel their “language of thought.” Kids with strong executive functioning skills tend to talk themselves through challenging scenarios like the Marshmallow Test, making a strong vocabulary an invaluable asset, in and beyond childhood.

Dr. Carlson also notes that, in educational settings, executive functioning flourishes when kids are having fun. Story Time Chess: The Game provides all of those contextual factors by offering kids a chance to learn through play and storytelling in the comfort of their own homes, surrounded by trusted, supportive family members.

Just like you, we want the best for your kids, and when it comes to fun, engaging, executive function-boosting activities, Story Time Chess has got the goods. Have a question about executive function? Don’t hesitate to reach out. This is a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts so if folks want to learn more, we’ll happily touch on it again in a future blog.