Interventions shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4-12 Years Old

What will children need to be successful? What programs are successfully helping children develop those skills in the earliest school years? What do those programs have in common?

See a new article by the BDL Conference Organizer, Dr. Adele Diamond, in the foremost science journal, Science.

Link to the article

Link to SOM (Supporting Online Material)

from the article:

“Four of the qualities that will probably be key to success are creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. Children will need to think creatively to devise solutions never considered before. They’ll need working memory to mentally work with masses of data, seeing new connections among elements. They’ll need flexibility to appreciate different perspectives and take advantage of serendipity. They’ll need self-control to resist temptations, and avoid doing something they’d regret. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to have the discipline to stay focused, seeing tasks through to completion. All of those qualities are ‘executive functions’ (EFs),”

“The best approaches to improving EFs and school outcomes will probably be those that (a) engage students’ passionate interests, bringing them joy and pride, (b) address stresses in students’ lives, attempting to resolve external causes and strengthen calmer, healthier responses, (c) have students vigorously exercise, and (d) give students a sense of belonging and social acceptance, in addition to giving students opportunities to repeatedly practice EFs at progressively more-advanced levels. The most effective way to improve EFs and academic achievement is probably not to focus narrowly on those alone, but to also address children’s emotional and social development (as do all 4 curricular-based programs that improve EFs) and children’s physical development (aerobics, martial arts, and yoga).”

8 thoughts on “Interventions shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4-12 Years Old

  1. Yes! — Integrated programs that improve creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline — programs that address obstacles to EF and simultaneously engage students in a deep connection to themselves and the world. We need to stop promoting fragmented “magic bullet” solutions and address the essential interconnected reality of the brain, the classroom, and of life. Bravo – Thanks Adele!

  2. What a wonderful article!

    It is great to see Montessori education getting some recognition for the magnificent neurodevelopment approach that it is. Montessori was describing the results of strong development of executive functioning over a hundred years ago, e.g.:

    (1) Love of work
    (2) Concentration
    (3) Self-discipline
    (4) Sociability

    There is some nice work by Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi (not reviewed in Diamond’s article) using Experience Sampling that compared Montessori vs. traditional school experiences ( This study is summarized in very readable form by Deborah Gilbert, Ph.D. for the Montessori Administrators of Georgia here:

    Quoting from Gibert’s summary:

    “The statistical analysis revealed that there were strong differences between the Montessori and Traditional students. The differences included:
    1) Montessori students reported a significantly better quality of experience in academic work than the traditional students,
    2) Montessori students appeared to feel more active, strong, excited, happy,
    relaxed, sociable, and proud while engaged in academic work,
    3) Montessori students enjoyed themselves more, they were more interested in what they were doing, and they wanted to be doing academic work more than the traditional students,
    4) Montessori students reported significantly higher percentages of undivided interest, higher motivation and higher levels of importance with regard to schoolwork,
    5) Montessori students reported more conditions where the challenges and skills used while doing academic work were above average.

    One has to wonder what impact these experiences might have on the development of executive functions, particularly the motivational and affective aspects. But you know, maybe it’s enough that the Montessori kids were excited about their work, plugged-in, and happy (even poor kids–EDCS is a Montessori school:

    Management guru Steve Denning has sung his own praises of the Montessori method here:

    ..and here:

    And check out this blog post about Montessori education, “Superwoman was Already Here”:

    Denning and others are calling for radical changes in education–educational approaches that promote high-level problem solving abilities and foster social and emotional development. Methods that understand the importance of executive functions. Montessori and her colleagues created a model that does exactly this over 100 years ago. It’s amazing that the education establishment continues to ignore this.

    Diamond’s article, and her Brain Development and Learning conference, offer hope for change if policy makers will listen to the evidence.

    -Steve Hughes, PhD, ABPdN
    President, American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology
    Chair, Association Montessori Internationale Global Research Committee

  3. wonderful Adele. your work shows what a developmental approach does for this work – enriching our understanding of holistic development, in social and physical contexts, across time. I look forward to continuing to work with you to bring this vision to the study of contemplative practices across the lifespan for caregivers, children, adolescents and emerging adults. Wonderful work and such success in bringing it into one of the most prestigious scientific journals on our little earth 🙂

  4. Thanks for the good read!

    I appreciate the values of having students be in an interactive classroom that values social interaction, physical activity, and new challenges as opposed to a less stimulating lecture type setting.

    Something that struck me was that everything presented to the child has to be progressively challenging. Most mental exercises according to the studies presented, if the child is not challenged the improvements are not significant. I think its interesting that this really applies to all activities that people do at all ages, at least if they would like to improve.

    Another thing that struck me was the impact of tae-kwon-do. Since tae-kwon-do incorporates social interaction, physical activity, and the traditional tae-kwon-do principles which includes a bit of meditation. It seems to me this would be the perfect way to globally affect executive function if you were to pick one extra curricular activity for your child as a parent.

    I also think it is sad that schools are cutting physical education when in reality, according to this article and other relevant research, it is probably one of the most important parts of a child’s education. A good Phys Ed program can incorporate mentally and physically stimulating activities that maybe a child would not get in a normal school setting that doesn’t have a curriculum that focuses on EF.

  5. I’m a kindergarten teacher and I couldn’t agree more with this research! The programs mentioned in this article are extremely needed in our classrooms, but schools just don’t seem to have the resources (or maybe the will) to make them happen. I have been pirating bits and pieces of various EF-focused curricula to use with my students, but without access to the full, coherent programs and the support that comes with them, I fear my efforts have been only marginally successful at best.

  6. The first thing I remembered when I discovered I was pregnant was some of the things I learned in my child development class in undergrad. “Early childhood is the most critical stage of life long learning.” “90 percent of brain growth occurs during the first 5 years of life.” Nerve paths develop even before children start school…. why waste time?

    Knowing this I promised myself that I would try my best to support and nurture my daughter’s early years. I decided to stay home with her for the first three years of her life. While doing this, I also discovered Montessori’s approach to education. I fell madly in love with the Montessori method so that is where I decided to enrol my daughter for preschool. It was also in that same year that I started working in a Montessori classroom.

    As a mother and educator, I firmly believe that the first step in “education” is to help young children “learn how to learn.” I see this every day with my own daughter as well as my students. How can learning begin without good focus? or if one is unable to control his/herself? We need to give young children the opportunity to be in an environment where they can practice their independence, follow their interest, and learn to self discipline.

    Early childhood programs need to include self-discipline and self awareness as an integral part of their curriculum. Our curriculum ( in Montessori) is specifically designed to develop cooperation, self discipline, social awareness, empathy, self reflection/awareness, and good communication skills. The development of these “executive functions” is necessary and is of utmost importance. I firmly believe ( as a parent & teacher) that it prepares young children beyond the confines of a classroom. Good (EFs) are habits and skills that they will carry for them rest of their lives.

    I am glad that more and more research is being conducted on children’s development and learning. Hopefully, the findings will help create changes in the public school systems. Teachers ( especially early childhood educators) are powerless. We need science/ data to back us up.

    Thank you for doing the research!

  7. As an early childhood administrator in Australia, it is interesting to note the enthusiasm that Montessori and associated research engenders amongst those who are familiar with it’s results. However, if the world of learning is to be truly changed the message (of the importance of the program in early years develpoment) needs to be broadcast far & wide, but especially to those who make decisions regarding curricula, funding etc in the wider community. Is that actually happening?

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