How Do Children Learn to Manage Complexity?

First published in E!stilo Magazine (Poland), November 2014 

Regardless of where in the world, a typical adult day is filled with complexity. We routinely multitask, deal with distractions and interruptions, maintain composure, lose composure, refocus, make decisions, regret decisions, reflect on progress, make new plans, and much, much more. Simply, we are busy. To successfully manage the complexity, we must know how to scan our environment, comprehend what is going on, retain and retrieve cognitive information, refrain from acting impulsively, predict what might occur next, and alter our plans when circumstances change. 

Children must develop these cognitive skills if they are to succeed in their typical day. However, their day is perhaps more complex because they are learning to manage while they are involved. In other words, their lessons occur all the time. For example, young children learn to manage complexity whenever they play. They decide who takes on which role and what they are supposed to do in those roles and then how to remember what everyone was doing when friends take breaks and then come back many minutes later. 

The essential cognitive skills we use to manage are called Executive Functioning – ER – and Self-Regulation – SR. How we develop these skills, and the extent to which these skills develop, effects how we do in our work and how children do in school. The extent to which ER and SF develop also influences the level of our social skills, our emotional responses, and the qualities of our personal relationships. 

Some researchers have compared EF and SR with the work of a symphonic conductor who coordinates and manages many players. Others have compared these functions with the work of an air traffic control system that safely manages landing and departing planes on multiple runways. EF and SR, like a conductor or an air traffic control system, equip us to sort through numerous channels of information, eliminate distractions, and make and then revise behavioral plans. 

We use EF and SR skills to focus, remember, work with stored information, manage distractions, and more. EF and SR involve three kinds of brain functions: (1) working memory – the ability to cognitively hold and use information; (2) cognitive flexibility – the ability to adjust to unpredictable and changing circumstances and set new priorities; and (3) self-control - the ability to think before responding to distractions or acting impulsively. These brain functions equip us to establish goals, develop and implement plans to achieve them, monitor and assess progress, make adjustments, manage setbacks, and overcome obstacles. 

There is a relationship between developed EF and SR skills and academic achievement. Children with strongly developed EF and SR skills will have higher levels of school achievement compared with children educated to mostly memorize math and reading skills. This is evident at a very young age. Children with strongly developed working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control score higher on tests of mathematics, language, and literacy development during their preschool years. Children who develop strong SR skills during their preschool years score higher on reading and language skills tests in first grade. The opposite is also evident. Children who struggle to focus and control impulses score lower and may act aggressively towards adults and other children. 

Learning to self-regulate, self-reflect, assess risk, learn from failure, and make responsible choices are essential 21st century skills in today’s complex and ever-changing future. Children are born with EF and SR potential. As they grow, children develop working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. What they experience during infancy, childhood, and adolescence will impact if and how these cognitive functions mature. Most of the growth of EF and SR abilities occurs between the ages of three to five. Children during these very few years must experience the right kinds of learning experiences in order for their EF and self-regulation skills to completely develop. These functions will not fully mature if school and home activities are primarily memorization-based. Children instead self-construct; they must be actively involved in their own education. Young children should explore age-appropriate objects and activities. Two year olds, for example, can successfully follow directions for where to place red objects. Three year olds can consider alternative directions such as place the objects here if they are red and over there if they are blue. Four and five year olds evidence greater cognitive flexibility. If the focus is on color, they can put red colored objects here. If the focus is on shape, they can put the red colored objects over there. 

Older children should ask their own questions and pursue their own investigations, make discoveries, and reflect on their process and new understanding. The role of the adult is to offer appropriate opportunities and to assist children with becoming independent. This role differs significantly from the traditional role of an adult who directs and manages children’s behavior and learning. The traditional adult tells children what to do, when to do it, and for how long. Instead, children will more completely develop in environments that allow them to make independent choices. 

Making choices and becoming self-directed is essential for the development of EF and SR skills. In order for optimal development to occur, adults should always show children how to do things. We should not, in other words, do anything for children that we can instead show them how to do it for themselves. Universally, young children express their desire for independence and insist, “I can do it!” Adults can assist children with becoming self-reliant by breaking complex skills and tasks into much smaller and manageable steps. A very young child may not be ready to complete the complex of steps involved with brushing teeth including wetting the brush, opening the tube of tooth paste, squeezing the bottom of the tube to place paste onto the brush, and then using the various brushing strokes. Instead, the child is shown how to do one of these steps. Similarly, a very young child can be shown how to independently put on a coat by placing it opened up on the floor; the top of the coat touches the child’s shoes. Later an older child is shown how to place the zipper pin into the box and then how to pull the slider tab to close the zipper. 

Successful reading and thinking mathematically also require mastering a set of complex steps. A child is first shown how to pronounce the initial phonetic sounds of letters. This leads next to blending sounds together to read words. In time children put words together to form sentences and then paragraphs. Reading and comprehension require the ability to manage memory (What sound goes with that letter? What was that word?), flexibility when words appear that were not expected, and self-control to maintain sustained attention to the printed words. EF and SR skills enable reading and mathematics; and, the process of becoming literate and numerate also builds EF and SR skills. 

Older children with developed EF and SR abilities are likely to be characterized as persistent. They have learned to manage stress, and they are open to new possibilities. Parents can readily support the acquisition of these characteristics. Parents in the memorization-based approach to schooling tend to ask their children if they had studied, memorized, for their tests. Parents today should ask their older children, What choices did you make today? Was there anything going on today that didn’t make sense to you? What new ideas did you think about? What did you do with your ideas? How did that turn out? What might you do next? How can I help? 

Learning to manage the complexities of everyday is an essential curriculum. The design of children is for this to take place when they are rather young. If EF and SR are to develop fully, children truly need the adults in their lives to offer the right kinds of learning experiences and at the right time.

Additional Reading

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Key Concepts: Executive Function.

Philip David Zelazo, Ph.D. Executive function part two: The development of executive function in infancy and early childhood.