To set children up to be successful and independent in life, we don’t just need them to memorize facts and practice raw skills. We also need them to develop the abilities to concentrate, multi-task, plan, and remember instructions. “Executive functions” are what child development experts call these meta-level brain functions that let all other skills and knowledge get put to good use. What’s more, research has shown that executive function skills are linked with better engagement and academic skills in school, as well as fewer behavioral and emotional problems.
Children aren’t born with executive function skills, but “are born with the potential to develop them,” Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains. “If children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions in their environments—or (worse) if those influences are sources of toxic stress—their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired.”
For children in families that lack economic security, community resources, or consistent home lives, executive function can be much harder to develop.
So for those children coming from disadvantaged situations—can anything be done to help them develop strong executive functions anyway? Absolutely, says a new study from researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and Pakistan’s Aga Khan University. Most research on executive function in children has been performed in high-income contexts, but this study focused on at-risk preschoolers in an area of rural Pakistan that has high rates of poverty and malnutrition.
The researchers found that there were three factors that were linked to better executive function skills in the preschoolers.
One was an intervention for parents in which government health workers had provided information and support for more sensitive and engaged parenting during monthly home visits from birth until age two.
Second was the child’s physical growth by age two—in other words, having adequate nutrition as babies and toddlers.
The third predictor of strong executive functions in the preschoolers was much more surprising: having older siblings. The researchers don’t know exactly why this was such a significant factor, but lead study author Jelena Obradović says, “It could be that these children get more caregiving from siblings, or it could be that they have to learn to regulate their behavior on their own because they have less attention paid to them. We can just speculate, but it’s a strong predictor for these children. Siblings matter.”
Now that more is known about which factors make a difference for underprivileged kids in a rural setting, more can be done to design effective interventions. This is huge, because, as Obradović explains, executive function skills “promote adaptation and resilience” and therefore “are really important for children at risk.”