The Importance of Executive Function in Young Children

The Facts About Executive Functioning

 What is Executive Function?

Executive function is our cognitive ability to manage the many things our brains need to do at once, including thinking, reacting and feeling. It allows us to focus and ignore distractions around us – think of it as our “mission control”.

Even at infancy, children begin to put their executive functioning to work and continue to develop these skills into adulthood. There are three major pieces of executive functioning:

  1. Self-control – Self-control allows us to manage ourselves and our behavior. For young children, it helps them pay attention, remain focused and act and react in appropriate manners.
  2. Working memory – Working memory allows us to hold information in our heads so we can relate it to other information we hear and use it accordingly. It is often crucial in a young child’s ability to spell or do simple math computations, for example.
  3. Cognitive flexibility – This is the part of our executive function that allows us to be creative and flexible and use these traits when thinking and/or solving a problem.

Is Executive Function Important?

Executive function and early childhood learning go hand in hand. Studies have shown executive function to be crucial in a child’s overall development and in future years. It is a major indicator of one’s academic abilities, their general behavior and social skills. Because we aren’t simply born with executive function, it is imperative that parents, caregivers and teachers help young children develop these skills.

We can see executive functioning at work when babies learn cause and effect relationships – for example, if they drop a ball and their parents pick it up, or if they kick their mobile, it begins to spin. As skills continue to develop in older children, they begin to remember to do things such as brush their teeth before going to bed or develop an understanding that they need to study the night before a test in order to perform well.

Studies have shown children from low socio-economic backgrounds to be at a higher risk of having difficulties with executive functioning. Low executive functioning has also been linked to other disabilities, including ADHD, learning disabilities, Autism, and depression – frequently, children with these disabilities display lower executive functioning and may have more difficulties developing such skills.

Helping Children to Develop Executive Functioning

Executive functioning that has not yet fully developed may be best exemplified in younger children with whom you simply cannot reason or who appear to be unable to complete even the simplest direction. However, early childhood learning experiences can go a long way in helping children to develop these important skills and is often something parents and teachers can positively impact. For example, calmer and supportive parents typically have children who display higher executive functioning. Or, early intervention programs can focus on activities that are designed to promote self-regulation. The following list provides some ideas of simple activities anyone can do to promote executive functioning for children in their home or classroom:

  • Create a daily routine
  • Maintain a calm and organized environment where children know what to expect
  • Engage in activities such as yoga, story telling, meditation and dancing
  • Set clear rules
  • Provide children with age appropriate jobs around the house or classroom
  • Encourage empathy
  • Read with children and engage them by asking questions about the text and pointing out things in pictures, etc.
  • Allow for more active learning time in small group and one-on-one environments.
  • Provide plenty of time for pretend pay and encourage early childhood learners to take on social roles when playing.

As always, whether you are helping young childhood learners at home or in the classroom, it is important to keep in mind that children develop new skills at different rates – this is true for executive functioning as well. Meet kids where they are and always provide a supportive and caring environment where they feel safe to try new things, take risks and develop at their own pace.





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