“Why is that kid misbehaving?” Chances are, this has something to do with their developing executive functioning. Executive functions are a collection of cognitive processes, which allow individuals to override impulsive actions in order to achieve longer-term goals. Children can show limitations in executive functioning when they blurt out answers in class instead of raising their hands, or try to sneak cookies before dinner -- despite being able to repeat the rules about how they should behave. This is not simply a matter of rebelling. In the lab, we can reliably elicit this type of behavior even when children are motivated to do well.

Children's executive functioning impacts not only their ability to control their behavior in the moment, but predicts important life outcomes decades later. It can also provide insights into behaviors of adults -- who show limitations in executive functioning but often in more subtle ways.

Research at the Cognitive Development Center focuses on:

  • why children struggle with executive functioning
  • what processes support the dramatic developments children show across the first decade of life and beyond
  • what benefits and costs come along with these developments
  • how this information might inform efforts to intervene

As one example, we have developed a new understanding of why children often cannot stop themselves when they are in the midst of doing something wrong. We have discovered that children tend to engage executive functions reactively (in the moment as needed), rather than proactively (in an anticipatory way). We have also found that mature inhibitory control depends upon proactive processes. Adults can do more than try to stop themselves while they are in the midst of doing something inappropriate (like reading text messages during a dinner outing); they can proactively watch for relevant cues (like the dismayed look on a companion's face when the phone buzzes) and anticipate the need to stop. Together, these discoveries suggest that children's inhibitory control might be improved if they practice proactively watching for relevant signals in the environment. In my lab, we have confirmed that such practice is effective – even more so than practice with actually stopping inappropriate actions.

Some of our latest work focuses on the role of social factors in developing executive functioning. We have found that how much children trust an adult influences whether they will delay gratification (holding out for two marshmallows later from that adult instead of eating one marshmallow now). In addition, the more time that children spend in less-structured activities like free play and social activities, which may provide opportunities for children to set and achieve their own goals, the better some aspects of their executive functioning.

This description of Professor Munakata's Contributions to Science provides some context for our research.

More information is available on the Cognitive Development Center website and Facebook page.