We use these skills throughout each day as we plan and organize tasks, dial a memorized phone number, juggle the schedules of family members, or set down that chocolate bar in the grocery store checkout line. Executive functions are learned skills that help contribute to our success in life. Teaching young children these critical skills early on can lead to improved learning and better outcomes as they progress through school and grow into adulthood.

What exactly are executive function skills? “Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.” We need these skills to demonstrate self-control and make good, healthy choices.

There are many things we can do to help children develop executive function skills. According to neurologist Judy Willis, if young children are given the opportunity to apply learning, they have a better chance of retaining information in the prefrontal cortex, or the area of the brain linked to executive functioning skills.

skills in early childhood

Image courtesy of Shire US Inc./ADHD&You

While Willis’s teaching strategies were written for classroom teachers, think about how they can be applied at home during reading time, crafts or other family activities.

  • Rather than asking students to rote memorize information, make lessons and activities personally meaningful to them. This helps build and strengthen the connection with the information so it can be recalled later.
  • Ask open-ended questions and allow students to work in groups. They can then share their own individual experiences and ideas, which will promote student engagement and add meaning to the lesson to help it stick.
  • Create “student-centered activities, projects and discussions” to allow students to make predictions, solve different types of problems, and figure out how to get the knowledge they need to reach their goals.
  • Give students opportunities to prioritize, set goals, and apply things they’ve already learned to a new lesson or concept.

Bilingualism is also another great exercise in executive function. Bilinguals have to select and focus on the language they are using or hearing and filter out any other languages they know. This rigorous brain workout is another reason bilingual students should be encouraged to communicate through their home language, not just the secondary language(s) they are using in school.

Helping children develop executive function skills prepares them to become healthy, contributing members of society. Therefore, teaching children to exercise self-control in social situations, exercise good judgement, plan and prioritize, and become good problem solvers is a responsibility that we should all take part in – parents, families, education leaders, teachers, and communities included.

Do you have additional ideas for teaching children executive function skills? Please share with us on the GrapeSEED Facebook page.

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