Executive function is a set of skills that stems from the coordination of three cognitive processes: cognitive flexibility, working memory and inhibitory control. These skills help us plan, focus, remember instructions and complete tasks. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to pay attention and switch attention from one task to another. Working memory enables us to mentally hold and process information, and inhibitory control allows us to stop an impulse and display a more appropriate response.
Executive function skills are foundational for success in education, employment, and in social situations throughout life. Executive function skills are important for many aspects of our lives, including:
Over the past two decades a strong body of evidence has developed demonstrating the importance of executive function skills across the lifespan. There also is a growing body of evidence on how to support executive function in young children.
Executive function skills are particularly malleable in early childhood and these skills can be taught, practised and improved. At the core of building strong executive function skills is establishing positive relationships with children. Modellingwhat strong executive function skills look like is important as children look to adults as a guide for their own behaviour. One way teachers can support executive function in the classroom is by talking aloud. For example, teachers can narrate their actions as they walk through the classroom and clean up: “We need to clean up the toys at the activity centres, so I’m going to start with the art centre first and then clean the dramatic play centre”. Using games can also be a powerful means for supporting executive function development.
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