At conferences and talks, many early childhood educators are interested in information about executive functioning in children. Recent brain research is demonstrating that the skills and abilities of executive functioning are essential to academic success and effectiveness in the workplace. What can teachers and parents do to support these critical thinking skills?
Luckily for parents and teachers alike, there is a lot that you can do to support these developing skills and capacities. The foundation of executive functioning comes from responsive, consistent, language-rich, child-focused everyday interactions with children.
So, what is executive functioning?
Executive functioning is the coordination of several areas of our brain that allows us to tune out, remember information and manage our actions and reactions. Think of it as the Air Traffic Controller of the brain. The Controller deciphers and remembers information, focuses and prioritizes attention while disregarding the unimportant, and manages internal reactions and distractions, like panic or boredom.
Executive functioning is a set of skills and abilities that begin to develop early in life. It involves the coordination of capacities rooted in the brain. And, they can improve with practice and training. So, what do we want preschool age children to practice?
- Self-control. Young children are developing the abilities to regulate their reactions and attention. They are learning to express a full-range of emotions and manage those emotions. At the same time, they are learning to direct their attention and ignore distractions.
- Flexibility in thinking. Problem-solving skills develop in the second year of life and continue to blossom throughout the first decade of life. Creativity and imagination are central to developing mental flexibility.
- Memory continues to grow, develop and become more refined. Being able to reflect on what is remembered is an emerging capacity.
Preschool children are just beginning to develop these brain-embedded skills and abilities. The coordination of these areas is just coming on-line. For example, children are learning to focus their attention and solve problems. They are expanding their abilities to wait for turns and listen to others answer questions. Preschool-age children are working to coordinate their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
As parents and teachers, there is much that we can do to encourage three-, four-, and five-year-olds to practice these emerging skills:
- Play games that require memory, like I Spy or Simon Says.
- Invite pretend play that allows children to invent and reinvent themselves, props and themes.
- Encourage problem-solving by asking children to think about how something could happen. For example, we want to eat fruit salad, but there is no fruit in the house. Ask the children, “What should we do?”
- Build delay of gratification skills by encouraging children to follow three-part directions, use phrases like “first this, then this” (“First we will cut the fruit and place it in a bowl. Next we will set the table. And then we will eat the fruit salad. “)
- Play start and stop games. Count to 10 before starting something. Use “ready, set, go” to announce the beginning of an action. Dance when the music plays and have everyone freeze when it stops.
- When putting away clothes or toys, say aloud how the items group. “All of the blocks go in this bin and the cars in the other bin.” Encourage children to help.
- Ask children why and what happens questions. “Why do you think we fold the clothes?” “What happens when the letter goes in the mailbox?”
- Allow your children to retell stories of their day, their projects or their activities and events. While they may need guidance with the sequence and accuracy of the details, the practice of remembering and retelling is essential.
- Play board and card games with simple and “flexible” rules.
Executive functioning begins developing early and forms the foundation for being able to concentrate on important issues with focus and agility. Playing games, encouraging pretend play, supporting problem-solving in young children creates the foundation for future positive school achievement and success in the workforce.
Dr. Terrie Rose, Psychologies and Child Development Expert
Dr. Terrie Rose is a licensed psychologist and wellbeing advocate who is transforming our understanding of emotional health and development by seeing from the child’s point of view. Follow her at www.drterrierose.com.