Essential Skills for Developing Executive Function
1. Executive function is not innate and must be developed
2. Development of executive function is linked to academic achievement
3. Physical play, storytelling, and role-play develop executive function
4. Don't assume toddlers have no focus - help them develop it!
Think for a moment how hectic it must be in an emergency room on a busy night, with patients coming in through the doors every second. It might seem like absolute chaos to a person looking in, with nurses, doctors, and other personnel swarming around, pushing stretchers, running down halls, and maneuvering various pieces of equipment. Yet, amidst all of this noise, they successfully treat patients, keep things running smoothly, and remain focused and calm. This is an example of executive function at work, self-regulating, prioritizing, and focusing despite distractions. Executive function begins to develop in babies and is not fully mature until they are well into their twenties. However, the most critical time for executive function development is between zero and five years old. Research shows that when children are guided well in the early years, they may have fewer issues during the teenage years.
Executive Function in Not Innate in Children
When it comes to children, executive function plays a significant role in handling various situations, how they learn, their choices, and how they solve problems. There are essentially three facets to executive function; inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. However, these abilities are not innate. Children do not have a preexisting notion or tendency to exhibit executive function; they have to learn and develop it with thoughtful guidance and encouragement from the adults in their environment.
Developing the Essential Skills for Executive Function
Parents, teachers, caregivers, and anyone else who interacts with children daily, have the responsibility of setting up opportunities for children to develop the essential skills for executive function. Here is a closer look at these three critical skills:
- Inhibitory Control -- This is the ability to resist various distractions and impulses so that you can stay focused on a particular task. Young children are impulsive and seem to have little self-control; they are not born with these skills. However, as children get older, their ability for self-control grows with them. Therefore, as long as children have ample support and regular opportunities to practice self-control, they can successfully manage their impulses and maintain their focus.
- Working Memory -- This is the part of the brain that helps you retain, access, and use various pieces of information over a short time (sometimes referred to as short-term memory). This is the quality that enables children to take individual bits of information and manipulate them to solve problems.
- Cognitive Flexibility -- As you probably already know, everything in the world is not black and white. Numerous situations call for different responses. Consider this example; when you're home, you know you can walk around in your pyjamas with no consequences. However, when you go to a fancy restaurant, you'd be kicked out if you show up in pyjamas. Therefore, you know that different settings and situations call for further actions. In other words, one way of doing things doesn't translate everywhere. When children develop their mental flexibility, they realize that specific rules and methods can change from place to place and from situation to situation.
How Executive Function Relates to Academic Success
A research article published in The Journal of Child Development concluded that if a child had impaired executive function in kindergarten, they had a significantly increased risk of having difficulty with mathematics, reading, and science in later grades. Additionally, these children had higher incidences of internalizing and externalizing problem behavior. Therefore, it's vital to work with children to develop these skills to build a healthy executive function capacity. If children experience negative situations, stressful environments, or worse, it can hinder their ability to develop these skills. These children may struggle to develop executive function in these situations, even as they grow into teenagers and beyond.
How Can I Help My Child Develop Their Executive Function?
There are many activities you can do with your child which develop these executive functions. Here are some of our suggestions:
Games and Puzzles
Do not assume young children have no concentration and focus! While it is true that children are not born with these attributes, a caregiver must help a child develop these skills. Provide your child one toy/puzzle or game to play with and complete. For example, this may be a stacking toy or a color/shape matching activity from our busy book. Ensure that you have cleared away any other toys lying around which will fight for your child's concentration. You will be surprised that when a child has one toy to focus on, they will usually complete an activity before moving on. This helps develop memory, self-control, and focus. Research shows that when there are many toys around a child, they play with each toy for a reduced amount of time and less creatively than if they had fewer toys! Check out our blog post on toy clutter for more information.
Playing physical games is not only an excellent workout for your little one but is a great way to develop executive function. Build a simple obstacle course - for example, use chalk on the ground to draw circles - take a couch cushion off and have the dining table accessible. Then ask the child to spin in the circle, jump on the couch cushion, then crawl under the dining table. Do it with your child for added fun!! As the child gets better, increase the complexity with additional stations and instructions. For example, you can increase complexity by including a puzzle station and a station at the end with a bowl of coloured objects. When you issue your child's instructions at the start, the final instruction should be to select a color from the color station. This will mean your child has to remember the color while doing the obstacle course. You can play with your child's competitiveness and time them too! You can make it even more fun by playing music and stopping it during the course where your little one has to "freeze" until you play the music again. This activity is excellent for self-control.
Research shows that children from cultures with rich storytelling have better memories. As such, one of the best tools to enhance memory is to invite your child to talk about their experiences and reflect on them. Ask your toddler about her snack or lunch. For example, ask him, "was your lunch crunchy?", "did you feel angry today?" "what made you feel happy today?". Encourage the child to take the lead (guiding them when they are stuck) to develop healthy associations with their emotions while growing their memory in a fun way. If your child is in daycare/preschool or kindergarten, ask them, "who did you play with" or "what was your favorite game at school."
Role-Playing and Creative Play
Having children role play is a great way to increase creativity and invite you into their world. If your child is playing doctor, ask her, "what is wrong?" and "how will you treat me?". If they're playing "kitchen," ask them what they are cooking and the flavor. Encourage them to be descriptive! Will your worm soup be squishy, hard, slimy?! Asking these questions helps the child draw on their experiences to formulate their narrative in a fun way. If you're on the go or at home and have one of our busy books, ask them to pull some characters out and encourage them to make up their own stories! They will draw heavily on their own experiences, and this practice will solidify their experiences, emotions and promote creativity.
Therefore, it's essential to provide a positive environment for children. Having meaningful conversations with them, playing various memory games, engaging in physical exercise, and creating situations that encourage children to problem-solve are great ways to help build these skills in tandem.
Providing children with age-appropriate tasks and materials is another way you can help them develop executive function. At Educating AMY, you can find more helpful tips and interactive products to help your child start developing critical skills and become more independent. Gradually, if you allow your kids to do more things independently, their executive function enables them to determine their actions with less input from you or other adults.
Morgan, P., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M., Pun, W. & Maczuga, S. (2018) Kindergarten Children's Executive Functions Predict Their Second‐Grade Academic Achievement and Behavior. The Journal of Child Development. 90(5): 1802-1816.