Cognitive control functions (‘executive functions’ [EFs] such as attentional control, self-regulation, working memory, and inhibition) that depend on prefrontal cortex (PFC) are critical for success in school and in life. Many children begin school lacking needed EF skills. Disturbances in EFs occur in many mental disorders, such as ADHD and depression. This paper addresses modulation of EFs by biology (genes and neurochemistry) and the environment (including school programs) with implications for clinical disorders and for education.
Unusual properties of the prefrontal dopamine system contribute to PFC’s vulnerability to environmental and genetic variations that have little effect elsewhere. EFs depend on a late-maturing brain region (PFC), yet they can be improved even in infants and preschoolers, without specialists or fancy equipment. Research shows that activities often squeezed out of school curricula (play, physical education, and the arts) rather than detracting from academic achievement, help improve EFs and enhance academic outcomes. Such practices may also head off problems before they lead to diagnoses of EF impairments, such as ADHD. Many issues are not simply education issues or health issues; they are both.
Executive functions (EFs; also called ‘cognitive control’ functions) are needed for reasoning, problem-solving, and whenever ‘going on automatic’ would be insufficient or worse. They depend on a neural circuit in which prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a central role, and are impaired by damage to, or dysfunction in, PFC. They are critical for mental health, achievement in school, and successful functioning in the world. The three core EFs from which more complex ones (like reasoning) are built are (1) inhibitory control (resisting a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most needed or appropriate, e.g., focused or selective attention; being disciplined and staying on task; exercising self-control and not saying or doing something socially inappropriate), (2) working memory (holding information in mind and working with it: mentally manipulating ideas; relating what you are learning, hearing, or reading now to what you learned, heard, or read earlier; relating an effect to the cause that preceded it), and (3) cognitive flexibility (being able to change perspectives or the focus of attention; thinking outside the box to come up with other ways to solve a problem; Diamond 2006; Miyake et al. 2000; Huizinga et al. 2006; Lehto et al. 2003).
Both biology (genes and neurochemistry) and the environment (including school programs) modulate the functioning of PFC and thus affect EFs. Unusual properties of the dopamine system in PFC contribute to PFC’s vulnerability to environmental and genetic variations that have little effect elsewhere, and some of those variations appear to differentially affect males and females. The relevance of this to disorders such as ADHD and PKU are discussed in the section below, as well as how genotype and gender can moderate which environment is most beneficial.
What we are learning about the brain is turning some ideas about education on their heads. “Brain-based” does not mean immutable or unchangeable. EFs depend on the brain, yet they can be improved by the proper activities. PFC is not fully mature until early adulthood (Gogtay, 2004), yet EFs can be improved even during the first year of life and certainly by 4-5 years of age. Neuroplasticity is not just a characteristic of the immature brain. PFC remains plastic even into old age, and EFs remain open to improvement. Many children today, regardless of their backgrounds, are behind on crucial EF skills compared to past generations (Smirnova, 1998; Smirnova & Gudareva, 2004), yet these skills can be improved without specialists and without great expense. Research shows that activities often squeezed out of school curricula (play, physical education, and the arts) rather than detracting from academic achievement, help improve EFs and enhance academic achievement. Such practices may also help to head off problems before they lead to diagnoses of EF impairments, such as ADHD, and may have dramatic effects on children’s life trajectories. Improving key EF skills early gets children started on a trajectory for success. Conversely, letting children start school behind on these skills may launch them on a negative trajectory that can be extremely difficult and expensive to reverse.