Developmental Variations in Learning: Applications to Social, Executive Function, Language, and Reading Skills

By Dennis L. Molfese; Victoria J. Molfese | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Developmental and Clinical Variations
in Executive Functions
Marilyn C. Welsh
University of Northern Colorado

You drive along the same route every evening as you return home from work. As you drive, you can engage in conversation with a passenger, sing along to the radio or argue with the talk-radio host, plan dinner, daydream, and so on. This kind of routinized activity does not demand a great deal of conscious attention, strategic thinking, or flexible action, although this is not an endorsement for engaging in such concurrent activities. In contrast, if this routine drive is perturbed by a traffic accident, a snowstorm, last minute errands that must be completed on the way home, then the task has now become an activity that engages executive functions (e.g., planning, generating and monitoring strategies, inhibiting maladaptive actions, and flexible shifting to more appropriate ones). For those people who normally adopt a “defensive driving” strategy, in which other drivers' actions are anticipated and their own potential responses are planned, the executive function system is continuously active.

Although still somewhat controversial, it is proposed in this chapter as it has been elsewhere (e.g., Welsh & Pennington, 1988) that infants and young children utilize executive functions, albeit primitive versions of the adult activities that subserve goal-directed, future-oriented behavior. When a 9-month-old reaches for a stuffed toy, the behavior is driven by the basic goal of play. However, executive functions are tapped to a greater extent when the infant must generate and flexibly execute the plan in order to retrieve the toy (e.g., push away a pillow, pull on the blanket on which the toy lies). Similarly, once the rules of a simple board game are

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