Brain Story – Air Traffic Control

What do children and air traffic controllers have in common? Let’s get into it!

Children manage mental processes like an air traffic controller manages airplanes in an airport.


Every day, there are various demands on our attention, from paying attention and controlling impulses, to managing emotions and prioritizing tasks (Shonkoff et al, 2011).
With practice and support, children learn to organize and control the tasks in their mental headspace, like an air traffic controller organizes and lands airplanes in a busy airport (Shonkoff et al, 2011).

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This system manages social and cognitive skills. Children depend on these emerging executive function skills as they learn to read and write, develop arithmetic skills and interact with peers (Shonkoff et al, 2011).

Although executive function skills can be improved at any time during and after childhood, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as trauma and abuse, can hinder the brain’s cognitive development (Diamond, 2013).



This can weaken the child’s air traffic control system and may lead to:

  • reduced impulse control
  • weakened working memory and attention skills
  • disruptive behavior

Just as an air traffic controller can learn to manage arriving and departing flights, children can learn to manage their mental processes through practice and support.

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