Our children are living in diverse and ever-changing cultural societies with different educational systems, social systems and values. But what effect do these cultural differences have on the early development of our executive functions? And even, do some of our executive functions develop differently because of these differences? Understanding how our cultural environments shape developing brains could account for some of the differences we see in executive function development. Importantly this could contribute towards knowledge of new strategies that promote healthy development for all children as well as challenging assumptions about the universality of ‘normative’ executive function development.
What are executive functions?
Executive functions are a set of mental processes that help us with daily skills such as prioritising tasks, filtering out distractions and controlling our impulses and emotions. Residing in one of the most evolved brain regions known as the prefrontal cortex, these skills work together to control all of our thoughts, emotions and behaviour1. Current research suggests that these skills are better predictors of school readiness than entry-level reading or maths ability, and even IQ2. Strong development of these executive function skills are strongly related to better outcomes in social-emotional functioning, physical health and mental well being throughout life2. If you want to find out what your executive function strengths and challenges are, then take our Executive Function questionnaire.
What does the research say about cultural differences in executive function development?
We know that children in Eastern and Western cultures perceive, process and organise information in different ways3. We also know that culture plays an important role in the development of our executive functions as huge differences have been found between children in Western and Eastern societies.
Common findings in psychological research report advantages in executive function development for children in Eastern Asian cultures (e.g. China, Japan, Korea). For example, they have been found to acquire their executive functions much earlier than children in Western cultures4, and outperform their Western counterparts on executive function tasks measuring working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility – our three core executive functions4,5.
Why might children in Eastern Asian cultures have an executive function advantage?
Researchers think that these differences could be attributed to social and cultural variations in parenting practices, classroom expectations and language6. Eastern Asian cultures highly value self-control, compliance and attention to instructions in both school and home environments. Self-control and self-regulation are also skills that parents in Asian cultures expect to be mastered at the age of 2, whereas Western cultures do not have similar expectations until the ages of 3 or 4 years7. Self-control relies on our attentional processes and reasoning skills. The development of these foundational skills can determine how well other executive function skills develop such as planning and goal-directed behaviour8.
Language is key.
If you think about it Chinese children have to develop strong memory-based techniques that allow them to retrieve the correct pronunciation of 4000-5000 logographic characters from their memories9. Whilst in the English language, we only need to develop solid memory techniques for the 26 letters of our alphabet and rely on a letter-sound correspondence system (i.e. the relationship between sounds and the letters which represent those sounds). Executive functions such as working memory, inhibition and attentional control have been found to be uniquely related to Chinese reading, but not of English reading4. This suggests that the developmental trajectory of our executive functions could be culturally dependent, at least in the context of reading and working memory.
There is also a bilingual advantage. The majority of children who live in Eastern and Eastern Asian cultures are bilingual, sometimes even multilingual, and are learning and using different languages every day. Learning another language during childhood can shape and advance our cognitive processing10 as it uses many of our executive function skills including task-switching, attentional control, working memory and response inhibition11.
Are there cultural differences in our executive function development?
So the big question is do our executive functions develop as coherent, unitary traits across a range of diverse cultures? Or alternatively, do our executive functions develop based on the demands of specific tasks and experiences that vary between different cultures – for example – a working memory advantage in Chinese children with reading?
Well, yes. The development of cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control are two of our core executive functions that have been reported to have different developmental trajectories based on the demands of tasks explained by cultural variations, and even in cultures which share similar parenting and educational practices12,13.
We know that executive functions are complex processes, and like most of our behaviours, they are hugely influenced by genetic factors. However, what this research does tell us is that environmental factors are just as important as genetic factors in the development of executive functions, and importantly that our executive functions are not fixed or immutable. It is worth keeping an eye on how this research develops over the next few years as it will have important implications on our developmental and educational interventions and policy.
How can Connections in Mind help?
At Connections in Mind, our team of dedicated and caring executive function coaches combine their own experience, expertise and knowledge with the latest research to create bespoke coaching programmes tailored to individual client needs. Our coaches are available to help your children, and even yourself, overcome challenges with executive functioning. If your child or yourself have difficulties with starting tasks, prioritisation, time-management, controlling emotions or even just staying focused for longer periods of time, a coach can help your child develop new strategies so that they can continue to grow and succeed.
Our Executive Function Adventures programme is a fun and engaging programme for young children who are struggling with executive functions at home or with school work. They will work one to one with an executive function coach and will learn new strategies but in a fun, story-telling way! Watch our video here to find out more! If you would like any further information about any of our coaching services then please book a free 30 minute discovery call with Sarah, our Client Services Manager today.
By Rebecca Tyler, Connections in Mind
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13Cheie, L., Veraksa, A., Zinchenko, Y., Gorovaya, A., & Visu-Petra, L. (2015). A cross-cultural investigation of inhibitory control, generative fluency, and anxiety symptoms in Romanian and Russian preschoolers. Child Neuropsychology, 12(2), 121-149.