Executive Functioning in Early Childhood


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:

  1. Play games that require memory, like I Spy or Simon Says.
  2. Invite pretend play that allows children to invent and reinvent themselves, props and themes.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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. “)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Ask children why and what happens questions. “Why do you think we fold the clothes?” “What happens when the letter goes in the mailbox?”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Article by:
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.

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2 Minutes to Better Relationships with Your Most At-Risk Students

There is much pride in the role of being an elementary school principal. There are many different hats to wear throughout the day and many different kinds of people to work with. One of my favorite aspects of the job is getting to build relationships with students at my school. Granted the job is also very challenging and I am looking for any efficiencies to carry out my work. Building relationships is not an area where shortcuts can be taken but I found an easy way for me to focus my energy and attention in a systematic way that creates more time for me to do my work elsewhere: The 2×10 Strategy! Continue reading

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Future Ready Leaders


Four Essentials of Future Ready Leaders

This is the statistic that disrupted my thinking as an elementary principal:

65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

Today’s schools are tasked with serving an increasingly diverse student body in an era of high-stakes accountability with rigorous standards, utilizing technology that is expanding exponentially while preparing students to be future ready for jobs that haven’t been invented. In order to do this effectively, schools need future ready leaders.

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Does Your Building Culture Promote Equity Education?


“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase coined by Peter Drucker and made more famous by Ford president, Mark Fields.

Likely all of us in education resonate with that phrase and concept to varying degrees, and I assume everyone is unanimous in thinking that absent a strong culture it is more difficult to move forward with key strategies and initiatives, regardless of how compelling or sound in practice they are. Many of the recommendations outlined in independent studies surrounding equal access to education are embodied in the process of policy making. Policy gets tied up in legislation and politics at the national, state, and local level and is disseminated for implementation in the form of mandates which are meted out procedurally in school districts and ultimately implemented at the school building level. This type of change is slow, cumbersome, frustrating and can take years. In order to create conditions which foster educational equity in your schools, focus on creating a culture which supports equity education. Continue reading

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Minnesota Humanities Center Conference

Blog Post paid for by the Minnesota Humanities Center

The Minnesota Humanities Center is taking applications for the Educator Institute, held in St. Paul the week of June 25–30. Administrators, please encourage a team from your building to attend this incredible experience for K–12 educators!

“The Educator Institute remains the single most powerful training I have participated in and has opened the path to on-going changes in dialogue both in the classroom and with community members.” Continue reading

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The Attitude of The Leader

post by Baruti Kafele

For the 14 years that I served as an urban principal in New Jersey, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the notion that the achievement gap was my primary issue. Although it existed and it was rather wide, I did not see a change in instructional practices being the solution to closing this gap. I was convinced that the problem was deeper than achievement yet within our grasp to correct. It was my strong contention then, as it continues to be today, that the attitudes of students, staff, and administrators matter. As I say regularly, attitude is everything!

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Grading for Learning: A Standards-Based Grading Journey

I was once asked what the purpose of school is. What a great question! To be honest I had to really think about the answer, surprised that such a simplistic question could cause me to pause. Schools nurture, inspire, educate; all needed and very important virtues to our students and families we serve, but what I finally landed on was learning. The Wikipedia definition for learning states that “Learning is the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.” This happens every day in each of our schools. However, this question prompted myself and our administrative team to think deeper about what our practices, procedures and policies were and whether learning was truly prioritized within our school.

If indeed learning is the business of our business, do all of our systems within our schools truly promote and reflect that?

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