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, 21 (5), 335-341

Activities and Programs That Improve Children's Executive Functions


Activities and Programs That Improve Children's Executive Functions

Adele Diamond. Curr Dir Psychol Sci.


Executive functions (EFs; e.g., reasoning, working memory, and self-control) can be improved. Good news indeed, since EFs are critical for school and job success and for mental and physical health. Various activities appear to improve children's EFs. The best evidence exists for computer-based training, traditional martial arts, and two school curricula. Weaker evidence, though strong enough to pass peer review, exists for aerobics, yoga, mindfulness, and other school curricula. Here I address what can be learned from the research thus far, including that EFs need to be progressively challenged as children improve and that repeated practice is key. Children devote time and effort to activities they love; therefore, EF interventions might use children's motivation to advantage. Focusing narrowly on EFs or aerobic activity alone appears not to be as efficacious in improving EFs as also addressing children's emotional, social, and character development (as do martial arts, yoga, and curricula shown to improve EFs). Children with poorer EFs benefit more from training; hence, training might provide them an opportunity to "catch up" with their peers and not be left behind. Remaining questions include how long benefits of EF training last and who benefits most from which activities.

Keywords: aerobics; cognitive control; executive control; inhibition; intervention; martial arts; prefrontal cortex; self-control; self-regulation; training; working memory; yoga.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Prefrontal cortex and executive functions (EFs) are the first area of the brain and mental functions to suffer, and suffer disproportionately, if you are sad (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005), stressed (Arnsten, 1998), lonely (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008), or not physically fit (Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008). Unmet emotional, social, or physical needs work against displaying good EFs. Conversely, when people are less stressed, happier, more physically fit, and socially supported, they can think more clearly and creatively and exercise better self-control and discipline (i.e., display better EFs). Therefore, I hypothesize that programs that will most successfully improve children’s EFs are those that require and directly challenge EFs and support EFs indirectly by reducing children’s stress or improving their ability to handle stress, increasing their joy, helping them feel that they belong and that others are there for them, and improving their physical fitness.

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