The Influence of Sleep and Exercise, Emotions and Stress, and Language on the Development of Executive Functions: Implications for Parents and Early-Years Educators

By Tobar, Claudia | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Sleep and Exercise, Emotions and Stress, and Language on the Development of Executive Functions: Implications for Parents and Early-Years Educators


Tobar, Claudia, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Executive functions (EFs) are known to be essential for the growth and development of a human being. Good EFs in an adult predict having a successful job, healthy living, and less possibility of committing crimes (Diamond, 2013; Moffitt et al., 2011). These behaviors certainly appear to be ones that any community and government should promote, as such behaviors benefit public safety, health, and the economy, and reduce the huge costs associated with crime, poor health, and unemployment. How can we help foster such positive behavior in young minds and thus benefit society?

Three core EFs are discussed in this article: inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These functions are localized in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that matures particularly slowly and does not reach full maturity until one's early twenties (Arnsten, Mazure & Sinha, 2012; Benes, 2006; Luna, 2009; Luna, Garver, Urban, Lazaar, & Sweeney, 2004; Sowell, Thompson, Holmes, Jernigan, & Toga, 1999; Sowell, Delis, Stiles, & Jernigan, 2001). The development of EFs happens over decades but the early years are crucial. Pineda (2000) suggests that between 6 and 9 years of age there is a peak in development of these functions; also see White (1970) on the 5- to 7-year shift. This peak could be due to developmental and maturation factors as well as the environmental school stimulation that children are exposed to at this age.

Some EFs such as inhibitory control are particularly difficult for young children (Diamond, 2013). Adults tend to have more control over their impulses in their daily activities. However, some children seem more mature for their age, showing more highly-developed EFs. The environmental stimulation for these children might be different, leading to more advanced problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Because, as mentioned above, the development of EFs has been shown to be highly predictive of stable jobs and overall health (Miller, Barnes, & Beaver, 2011; Moffitt et al., 2011), educators and parents have become keenly interested in children developing good EF skills in the early years. There are three principal suggestions presented below concerning factors that influence the development of EFs. Understanding the influence of emotions and stress, sleep and exercise, and oral language in promoting EF development can help educators and parents who seek to provide children with opportunities for better EFs and academic achievement.

Exercise and Sleep

Keeping your body healthy stimulates a healthy mind. Sleep and exercise have been shown to be two physical factors that affect the prefrontal cortex and EFs. For both adults and children, lack of sleep or exercise impairs cognitive performance. For example, in 2003, Sibley and Etnier analyzed the results of 44 studies related to physical activity and cognitive performance to measure the real impact of physical activity in various subjects considering numerous variables. The results showed that performance in all cognitive areas, except memory, significantly correlated with physical activity with an overall effect size of 0.32 (Sibley & Etnier, 2003). With regard to cognitive functions, different types of functions showed varying effect sizes; the highest being perceptual skills, followed by creativity and concentration and, finally, memory (2003). More recently, Hillman (2010) showed that physical activity has a positive effect on cognition, especially on executive control functions (scheduling, planning, working memory, multi-tasking, and dealing with ambiguity). Ploughman (2008) suggests there are three main possible ways physical activity has a positive impact on executive functions. The first relates to the oxygenation of the brain, the second refers to the increase of certain neurotransmitters (notably serotonin and norepinephrine, which facilitate information processing), and the final way is the upregulation of certain neurotrophins in the brain, which means an increase of the cellular component. …

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