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Family Matters

A Different Way to Understand “Behavior”: Executive Functions and the Mind’s Eye

Once upon a time, scientists thought that children’s brains were adult-like—that they could reason, but that children’s emotions would develop over time. Now scientists know that the reverse is closer to the truth.

Babies are born with their basic emotions intact, but then babies’ brains undergo an incredible amount of cognitive development—children’s brains develop into adolescents’ brains and then into adult brains around 22-24 years old. At least, that is the state of the current research. It seems that the developing frontal lobes are responsible for what we call “mature” self-control. The frontal lobes help human beings inhibit the behaviors that would interfere with effectively planning, organizing and executing tasks. Staying motivated to complete tasks and having the ability to self-evaluate are all part of the executive functions. In short, executive functions help individuals plan and do. Barkley says, executive functions provide the “mind tools” for an individual to regulate behavior over time for one’s own welfare.

While the frontal lobes of the brain might act like the “conductor of an orchestra”, this discussion of the brain just touches the surface of the remarkable complexity of brain processes. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to try to understand what may be going on, when we ask our kids to “behave!” Neuropsychologist Russell Barkley has a theory to help parents understand what he believes to be the four executive functions of the frontal lobes. He believes that these executive functions develop in a step-wise hierarchy where each needs the earlier ones to function well:

Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Voice, Mind’s Emotions, Mind’s Play

Mind’s Eye: Pre-language experiences and the process of learning how to talk cause imagery in the brain. These events (that are eventually tied with words) make pictures in the mind called non-verbal working memory. Human beings have the ability to picture something that happened in the past (hindsight) to help make a decision about the future (foresight). Children who have developing executive functions have an emerging ability to use hindsight and foresight as a way of guiding behavior.

Children first must understand cause and effect, which happens in a basic way when baby keeps dropping her toy off of the high chair to hear the sound. Around 18 months a toddler begins understanding that Daddy is hiding the toy that just disappeared. And for most kids a true understanding of cause and effect happens sometime around 7- to 8-years-old .

After understanding cause and effect, children need to remember past events and be able to hold them in the mind so they can compare them to the consequences of those events. Based on the positive or negative value of those consequences, most kids will learn from their mistakes and be motivated by their successes. If I can remember how I burned my finger on the hot pot, I will be careful to avoid touching anything on the stove. If I can hold in my mind a picture of myself receiving a soccer trophy, I will want to experience success again.

Part of the “mind’s eye” is the ability to sense and use time. Barkley says executive functions are the “organizing of events over time towards the future”. Children move from living completely in the moment (birth to two- or three-years-old) to being able to tolerate some frustration in order to wait for the ice-cream cone or the weekend movie. Being able to picture an “anticipated future” and being able to wait for it starts with development of the mind’s eye.

Mind’s Voice: Researchers are fairly certain that the ability to internalize language predicts an ability to control actions and behavior. Barkley calls this process the “privatization” of language and others call it “self-talk” or verbal working memory. What this means is that language develops from the toddler who babbles everything and has no internal speech to pre-school children who “live out loud” and say most everything they are thinking, to the older school-age children who begin to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Researchers believe that self-control begins to emerge if an image in the mind is linked to language about it. As language stays in the mind (rather than coming right out of the mouth) questions like “What should I be doing, now, in this situation?” begin to guide behavior. This is the beginning of rule-governed behavior and the process Steven Covey calls “pushing the pause button”.

Mind’s Emotions: Using frontal lobes along with other parts of the brain, images in the mind become linked with language that is linked with emotions. In other words, all events we remember have emotions bonded with them. How we feel about what happened to us in the past will affect how we act in the future—depending on our ability to hold these considerations in mind.

Children eventually develop the ability to not only envision a past event and think about it, but also to re-experience the feeling they had about it. Once a past event with emotional value is in mind, children will begin to imagine or create a possible future. This is the way a child begins demonstrating self-control and also the beginning of motivation and goal-setting. If I can fully hold in mind a past event that has a strong emotional value to me I may begin to believe that if I act a certain way I can increase the likelihood of creating a desired future. These three executive functions allow me to delay acting impulsively (which may cause unpleasant or unsafe consequences) and begin acting purposefully. This is what we call self-direction and includes goal-directed problem-solving and persistence. I explain it to children as the difference between a boat (with the engine turned on) motoring towards a destination and a boat (with the engine turned off) just drifting in the waves.

Mind’s Play—When the first three “mind tools” are working well, the individual can now grow in fluency of thought. Barkley says ideas held in mind can be taken apart and recombined into something new. Instead of a child needing to take a thing apart physically to see how it works, older children and adolescents begin to do this in their heads. Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking will begin to emerge as children’s executive functioning develops.

At times, we adults have expectations for our children that may not mesh with their developmental ability to meet those expectations. This can cause unnecessary conflict in families. I hope that this information about the brain’s “mind tools” helps you recognize healthy development and helps to increase the harmonious interactions in your family!

Sources:;; “ADHD and Executive Functions”

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