Executive Function

& Self Regulation in Children

by Jane Gilgun

Copyright 2010 Jane Gilgun

Smashwords Edition


Executive function and self-regulation are two capacities important to child development. This article describes what these two terms mean, illustrates main points with case examples, and provides guidelines for parents and professionals.

About the Author

Jane Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA.

Executive Function

& Self Regulation in Children

Executive function (EF) is a term that covers a broad range of capacities related to judgment, problem-solving, organization of self, anticipation of consequences, working memory, and following rules and directions. Regulation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is part of executive function as well, but in the NEATS assessment, self-regulation is a separate category because of its significance in social work and other applied settings.

The neurological basis of executive function is located primarily in the prefrontal cortex, which is in the front of the brain and is the seat of reasoning. The term “executive” fits these sets of capacities because an executive is someone who is in charge. The neocortex, however, is connected to many other areas of the brain, such as emotion and motor centers.

Like brain functioning in general, executive functions or skills arise from a combination of genetics and experience. Adequate nutrition and good prenatal care as well as genetics lead to good executive functions at birth. Subsequent experience contributes further to executive function development. With sensitive, responsive care, children build upon existing skills to continue their optimal development.

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