The official definition of executive function is: a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. Think of executive function as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills, enabling us to manage our lives, responsibilities, and projects. These skills include:
- Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time.
- Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
- Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
- Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
- Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
- Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
- Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
- Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.
Looking at this list, it’s obvious that self-regulation is a critical competency of executive function in two major ways: social-emotional (appropriate behavior in a social context) and cognitive (focus, academic learning, problem-solving). When children are self-regulating, they can both stop or start doing something, even if they don’t want to. They can delay gratification; they can think ahead; they can control impulses and consider options. It is crucial that children learn basic self-regulation in early childhood because research indicates that “children who cannot control their emotions at age four are unlikely to be able to follow the teachers’ directions at age six, and will not become reflective learners in middle and high school.” (http://toolsofthemind.org/learn/resources/research-by-tools/)
Breathing Techniques for Executive Function
Breathing techniques offer easy-to-practice activities for building basic self-regulation in the body of youngsters and in your classroom. With something specific to do to support themselves when confronted with transitions, sharing, waiting, and re-directing impulses, children are better able to navigate those challenges. As they experience how specific ways of breathing enable them to tolerate feelings and manage impulses, they start to embody greater control. This process strengthens executive function, which builds self-esteem and self-trust.
Help kids learn how to count on their inner wisdom and intelligence. Make time for self-reflection and self-care throughout the day. Then introduce and practice breathing exercises regularly as a way to de-stress, recharge, and reset to to an optimal mind-body state. Below are 2 options that offer simple, effective tools for healthy self-regulation.
is a fun technique that is sure to make kids laugh and not take things too seriously. Because it requires make a silly blooping sound on the exhale, like a fish, it disperses tension, releases frustration, and busts the stress of over-efforting. Humor and playfulness are keys to accessing executive function and creative thinking. Physiologically, when you inhale deeply, you pull in lots of oxygen needed by our brain and body to stay relaxed and alert. When you exhale completely, you make room for more which helps us release toxins and recharge.
And again, deep breath in your nose…
Fill up your cheeks with it and …
Exhale it out your mouth …
Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, blooooooop.
activates the midline of the body, connects both hemispheres of the brain, and relieves tension in the eye muscles. As they inhale, direct children to place one hand on their belly button and the other on their sternum, like giving themselves a hug. Then, as they exhale, have them move just their eyes (head remains still) slowly from right to left and back again 2-4 times. This movement facilitates improved eye teaming skills and cross-motor coordination.
Overall, Ocean Breath slows, calms, and centers both mind and body, which will enable children to access executive function.
Place one hand on your belly button,
place the other in the middle of your chest.
Press your thumb and forefinger into the
soft tissue points beneath your collar bones
on either side of your sternum. Inhale fully
through your nose and then, as you exhale
slowly, move just your eyes from right to left.