Executive Function & Young Children

“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

  • Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child

Executive function is a term that has been getting lots of attention lately, and the paragraph above explains exactly why. These are the skills that children need in order to develop and grow as students and as members of classrooms, families, and societies. Without these organizational skills, it is hard to put all of the information in your brain to good use. A child might have a great idea for building a cardboard house for a stuffed animal, but in order to build it they need tools ( and they need to know where to find them).

One of the ways we support the development of executive functions skills is with this simple rule… Everything has a home. The next time you are in the classroom you can see this for yourself. Not only does everything have a home, but the children are also responsible (with support as needed) to return items to their homes when they are done. From scissors and tape to blocks and dress up clothes, this rule applies to just about everything – including their belongings – boots on the boot tray, lunches in the basket, coats on the hook in the cubbies. Adults give lots of reminders, LOTS of reminders, and then children start internalizing this organization and returning things to their homes independently. This is learning that will impact a child for years to come.

Executive Function & Young Children: Part 2, Routines

In case you missed part one of this series, here is a brief recap. Executive function and self-regulation go hand in hand as the mental processes that help us plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks as we move throughout our day. One of the most important ways we promote the development of executive function in preschool is through the use of routines. Routines help eliminate those feelings of being stressed and overwhelmed, so learning how to create and use routines is a key executive function skill that also supports self regulation. Do you keep your keys in one spot all the time? If you do, you know you can walk out the door reliably and calmly at any time. If you don’t – and most of us have experienced the don’t – you know what happens.

Some children seem to naturally notice and employ routines and can articulate them, like when a child tells me that after lunch we play outside, and then get ready for rest. While these highly organized children do exist, all children benefit when we consciously bring routines into their awareness. This necessary step supports children as they learn how to organize and self regulate, and it helps them have mental “head space” available for all the other learning that takes place in a classroom!

Some routines have many steps, but there are many simple, one step routines here at school. The goal is for routines to become habits that don’t need constant reminders, like washing your hands after you use the bathroom or pushing your sleeves up before playing in the water table. A key benefit of involving children in routines is the development of independence – independence that flourishes when we trust children to carry out routine tasks they are capable of.

Preschool students demonstring executive function with routines

Some routines are more involved and have several steps, so for these we provide verbal support or visual support (or both). The most obvious is preparing to go outside for snow play. Stop and think about everything involved in this endeavor, a very complicated process with steps that need to be isolated and pointed out because order of events matters. It’s hard to do anything else if you start with mittens! There are dozens of routines that we utilize while we are at school, routines that help necessary things get done efficiently and leave us free to explore, have fun, and learn with each other.

Children learn so much in their first five years of life, and executive function skills are crucial as a major contributor to school (and life) readiness and success!