If you are a teacher or a caregiver seeking an intervention program that will develop social-emotional competence for your child, you will not be surprised at how many more of these promising programs exist today than existed only a decade ago. On the contrary, you may be surprised to find out that although researchers have conducted a myriad of studies in the area of social-emotional development and have both indirectly and directly linked executive function as an important variable in social-emotional interventions, executive function intervention is rarely considered, let alone included as a component of social-emotional intervention programs.
To reduce the ambiguity of these complex terms, here are simple explanations for each:
Social-emotional competence is defined as one’s ability to resist reacting impulsively toward something or someone; being aware of one’s own feelings and managing them; accurately perceiving others’ points of view; accurately identifying problems; and suggesting appropriate and positive solutions and goals. When children demonstrate mastery of these skills, they are said to be socially and emotionally competent.
Executive function is defined as the skills necessary to participate in purposeful, goal-directed activities. These skills include the ability to inhibit impulses, shift attention from one task to another, plan, initiate tasks, and utilize working-memory.
You may have recognized that many of the executive function skills and the social-emotional skills are alike, such as problem-solving and resisting impulsive behavior. Why then, is executive functioning not considered to be an integral component of social-emotional interventions? If current research implies that deficiencies in executive functioning are related to difficulties in domains of social-emotional functioning, then intervention programs that promote social-emotional competence should include tasks that strengthen executive functioning.
To emphasize the correlation between executive function and social-emotional competence, here are additional findings from current research.
Delay of gratification—that is one’s ability to resist immediate gratification for a more valuable outcome at a later time—is related to the social-emotional competence skill of resisting temptation and regulating one’s level of frustration and stress. Children’s [executive] ability to plan and inhibit responses, and to control what to focus on, may directly influence their ability to control their behaviors to comply with social demands, such as when they are expected to delay gratification
A strong theory of mind—defined as a child’s awareness and understanding of others’ mental states and the effect of others’ mental states on their beliefs and behaviors—is necessary for children to comprehend deception as another’s false belief. It is also associated with the executive function skills such as working memory, mental flexibility, inhibitory control, and planning.
So, what’s the point? It’s really quite simple: if you expect for any social-emotional intervention program to be effective in developing your child’s social-emotional competence, do not disregard the role of executive function in social-emotional development. If intervention programs included tasks that develop and strengthen executive functioning, social-emotional competence would subsequently follow.
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