Executive functionNeed help?
Executive function is a set of skills that stems from the coordination of three cognitive processes: cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control.
- 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.
- Inhibitory control allows us to stop an impulse and display a more appropriate response.
These skills help us plan, focus, remember instructions, and complete tasks.
Use the following reading to learn more about the various components of executive function and how these can be strengthened. As you read, think about how the different processes that make up executive function support children with learning, and with social and emotional competence.
What is executive function?
Some children have an easier time paying attention than others. Some children follow directions well, but others do not. Some children are more likely to hit others when they feel frustrated, rather than stopping and using their words instead. Many of the differences we see in young children’s behaviour relate to their executive function. 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. Executive function is important throughout life and starts to develop early.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to pay attention and switch attention from one task to another. For example, children use cognitive flexibility when they focus on one activity, such as building with blocks, but then switch to another activity, putting the blocks away and joining their peers for a story.
Working memory enables us to mentally hold and process information. Young children use working memory when they have to remember and follow one or more instructions, such as when working on an art project and then putting their materials away.
Inhibitory control allows us to stop an impulse and display a more appropriate response. We see this often in young children when they have to take turns in sharing a desirable toy (for example, asking ‘Can I have a turn?’ rather than grabbing the toy). In young children, the three aspects of executive function work together and can be seen in many different ways, such as when a child has to listen and follow directions, ignore distractions, and wait in line.
How executive function develops
Executive function begins to develop early in life. Babies who experience warm and supportive interactions with important adults in their lives are more likely to feel safe and secure. This helps children develop positive relationships with parents and adults, giving children the confidence they need to explore their world and develop independence and problem-solving skills. Secure relationships also lead to strong social emotional development and executive function skills in young children. Children who develop executive function skills early in life are more likely to show self-control, especially as they get older and make the transition to more structured learning environments.
Executive function skills are important
Early education teachers often report that children’s executive function skills are foundational for success in educational settings and social situations. More than two decades of research have shown that these skills are important for many aspects of our lives, including:
- Mental and physical health across the lifespan
- Effective social communication
- Short and long-term success in school
- University completion
In fact, executive function has been a stronger predictor of early academic achievement than IQ.
Although executive function is a key predictor of many outcomes, a significant number of young children struggle with these skills. This is especially evident when children make the transition from early childhood settings to formal educational settings such as primary school, which are often more structured than ECE settings. Many young children easily transition to primary school but a significant number of children experience difficulty. Teachers report that young children struggle most with challenging behaviours that relate to aspects of executive function like being able to focus and pay attention, persisting with tasks, and demonstrating self-control in academic and social situations. This is concerning because we know that these skills help children navigate classroom settings. In fact, children who struggle with executive function are more likely to dislike school and become disengaged, which can place them at risk long-term.
Strengthening executive function skills
Based on evidence showing us how important executive function is for children’s school success, an essential question to consider is how to support development of these skills in young children. Executive function skills are particularly malleable in early childhood, and intervention research has shown that these skills can be taught, practised, and improved. This is especially evident for children who struggle with executive function skills. For example, children aged 3-5 who participated in an intervention aimed at helping children practise executive function skills with music and movement games (called Red Light, Purple Light!) demonstrated improvement in their executive function skills and early academic achievement compared with children in a control group. Providing children with opportunities to practise executive function skills in fun and engaging ways has been shown to help children improve these skills and then demonstrate them in a variety of settings, including home and school.
Strategies to improve executive function skills
Parents, teachers and other adults serve an important role in helping children develop executive function skills. As noted, positive early relationships lay the foundation for executive function skills by helping children feel safe, secure and ready to explore and problem-solve. Parents and teachers do many things that encourage the development of children’s executive function, even if they do not know it! Below we include several strategies that teachers can use to support these skills in early childhood settings.
- Take time to build relationships with children. This can be hard when there are many children in a group and when individual children may need extra support! However, taking time to build positive teacher-child relationships provides children with a strong foundation for social emotional skills and learning. Children who have strong relationships with their teachers make greater gains in school readiness and positive behaviour over the year.
- Model what strong executive function skills look like. Children look to adults as a guide for their own behaviour, and one way teachers can support executive function in the early childhood settings is by talking aloud. For example, teachers can narrate their actions as they walk through the space and clean up: ‘We need to clean up the toys at activity centres, so I’m going to start with the art centre first and then clean the dramatic play centre. Then we will be ready to go outside to play!’ By modelling positive behaviour, children can see how adults use executive function in their daily lives to be organised and planful.
- Set up the space to promote executive function skills. Teachers can organise learning and play spaces in ways that encourage children to practise executive function skills. In order to support executive function, it helps to plan and focus activities that can build upon one other. For example, teachers can allow children the opportunity to move between relatively unstructured activities, like dramatic play, and more complex activities like a multi-step art activity where children need to remember and follow directions while ignoring distractions to stay on task. Children need both types of activities to practise executive function skills and then process what they are learning through play. Teachers can also give children materials and activities that require them to practise executive function skills. For example, teachers can promote focus and attention (which are important parts of executive function) by having children practise their fine motor skills in a maths game that involves them having to use tweezers to sort small manipulatives into categories (such as colour).
- Use games as a teaching tool. Children develop strong executive function when they practise these skills in different contexts and settings. This means that it is important to practise executive function skills outside of challenging moments. One fun and simple way to incorporate executive function into everyday activities is to use music and movement games and add steps to make them more complex over time. For example, interventions such as Red Light, Purple Light! include games that become more challenging over time. In one game, the Freeze game, children dance to music and then freeze when the music stops. After children practise the basic rules of the game, more complex rules are added. Children are then asked to dance quickly to fast music, slowly to slow music and freeze when the music stops. To add another level of complexity, children are then asked to do the opposite (which can be tricky!) and dance quickly to slow music and slowly to fast music. In another game, called the Sleeping Game, the teacher sings a short lullaby and the children pretend to go to sleep when they hear the song. The children then ‘wake up’ when the teacher says: ‘and when they woke up, they were kangaroos hopping around the room’. Children move around the room pretending to be the animal or action named by the teacher. The teacher then uses the lullaby as a cue for children to pretend to sleep again. As children learn new executive function activities and games, teachers can also allow opportunities for children to lead the group in game play (for example, a child names the animal or action during the sleeping game). These are just a few examples of ways that teachers can embed aspects of executive function into their everyday activities. Typical activities can be easily modified to more explicitly support children’s executive function skills as well.
- Engage families in supporting executive function at home. Children’s first teachers are their parents and other important adults in their life. Engaging families in activities surrounding the development of executive function skills can provide the extra support children need to succeed. Teachers can play games like the ones mentioned above with children as part of family events or open days. This helps parents see some of the ways that they can promote executive function skills at home. Teachers can also share information with families about the importance of executive function skills, encourage parents and other adults to model these skills themselves, and send home flyers with examples of activities that families can do at home to help children practise executive function skills.
Children’s executive function skills include their ability to focus and pay attention, remember instructions and demonstrate self-control. These skills are important aspects of early learning and development that help children regulate their behaviour and they are correlated with social and academic success. Executive function skills develop early in life and are supported through warm and secure relationships. The early childhood years are a sensitive period of development when these skills are especially malleable. Teachers can do many things to build positive teacher-child relationships and promote executive function skills in early childhood settings, including adapting existing activities to help children practise these skills. Including families in these efforts can also help support children’s executive function at home and in other important contexts of their lives.
To read the fully referenced version of this research review by Dr Megan McClelland and Dr Shauna Tominey, click here.
In this video, Dr Dione Healey talks about how executive function fits into the broader skill of self-regulation, and discusses a programme she has developed called ENGAGE, which is designed to support children to develop their executive function and emotional regulation skills.
About Dr Dione Healey
Dr Dione Healey is an Associate Professor at the University of Otago and the developer of the ENGAGE programme. She is a clinical psychologist with a PhD in Psychology. She trained at the University of Canterbury before heading to the USA to do postdoctoral work with Distinguished Professor Jeffrey Halperin at Queens College of the City University of New York. She now works in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago and has extensive clinical and research experience in the area of self-regulation in young children. Dione is the lead developer of the ENGAGE programme and is the Director of the ENGAGE research and development programme based in her research laboratory at the University of Otago.
Self-regulation is such a core skill that is strongly associated with all sorts of outcomes in everyday functioning: social emotional functioning, academic functioning, learning. There is research, one of the main ones being the findings from the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, where they found that poorer self-regulation skills very early in childhood, at age three, were predictive of a wide array of adverse adult outcomes. So, they really spanned quite a spectrum: poorer employment and work functioning, poorer mental health, higher rates of criminality, more relationship difficulties, higher rates of unemployment. So, that shows that this is a really core, important skill for functioning across the lifespan, and it is really important to be fostering it early on. It’s developing around that early child – by age three, four, five, children are starting to develop the ability to self-regulate, and we’re constantly developing it, right throughout our lifespans.
What is the relationship between self-regulation, emotional regulation, and executive function?
The three terms are often used quite inter-changeably, and they overlap quite significantly. So, people do often get confused, and in a sense, they’re kind of all describing a similar, or the same type of thing. I would see self-regulation as the umbrella term that encompasses executive functioning and emotion regulation within it. So, I see self-regulation as consisting of behaviour regulation, so being able to regulate your behaviour and inhibit your responses – stop yourself from responding in certain ways. Cognitive regulation: your ability to think, focus, concentrate, remember information. Then, emotion regulation: your ability to manage your emotions in different situations. When people typically talk about executive functions, they’re talking more about the behavioural cognitive aspect of regulation, so you think of it as being associated to the prefrontal cortex functioning. So, you’ll often think about executive functioning as the brain’s kind of management system, so the planning, the organising, the inhibiting, the remembering aspects of self-regulation. Then, the emotional regulation piece is sort of the other part of it, which is about managing your emotions.
How are self-regulation skills important for social emotional competence and learning?
All three of those aspects of self-regulation are really important for your social functioning, and also later on in your learning and your academic functioning, because we need all of those skills to varying degrees in varying situations, really, across life and functioning. So, if we think about social functioning: for example, if you’re having a conversation with another child – two children are having a conversation – there are a lot of complex skills involved in that. You have to be able to attend to what the child is saying, understand what they’re saying, remember what they’ve said so that you can respond to what they’ve said, and sort of flow in the conversation, but also, having that inhibitory control, so that you’re able to stop yourself from just butting in or talking over them, but waiting for your turn, until you can response in that reciprocal way within the conversation. So, that would be one example of where self-regulation is important in social functioning.
Other aspects are, of course, that emotional piece, so being able to manage frustrations, if you’re playing a game with other children, and you’re not winning, or they’re not playing the game the way you wanted to them to play the game, so being able to negotiate, compromise, manage your emotions, if you’re feeling frustrated that it’s not going the way you would like, necessarily. When you’re learning information, you have to be able to remember the information that you’ve learned, but also, typically learning new skills, be them everyday basic skills, or more formal academic learning later on down the piece, you need to be able to focus, concentrate, manage your emotions, because learning a new skill typically requires quite a lot of persistence, and lots of attempts at doing it – not necessarily getting it right the first time, so being able to manage the emotion that’s associated, and also being able to then persist and keep going, even though you might be finding it hard or distressing.
You create the ENGAGE programme to help young children develop self-regulation. Tell us about the programme and it works.
Essentially, the idea around ENGAGE is that it’s a framework for teaching self-regulation through play. So, the idea is that we’re teaching these skills across the three areas of self-regulation – behavioural, cognitive and emotional – via playing varying games in a structured way. So, it’s easiest to just kind of give an example of how it works, to try and describe it. So, essentially with ENGAGE, there’s varying steps to it. The first idea is to think of a skill that you want to teach, so, for example, you want to help a child learn to regulate their behaviour – help them being able to slow down or calm down when they’re being overly-active. Then, you need to think of a game that involves that skill. So, an example we often use is an animal speeds game, where essentially, they do different activities and tasks across three different speeds, and again, you can choose animals or any kind of superheroes or characters, or anything that children relate to as being fast, moderate, and slow. So, we’ll often use a cheetah for being really fast, a giraffe for being moderate, and a tortoise for being slow. Then, you can do varying activities at these different speeds, but before you start the game, it’s also really important to kind of connect the game to the child’s everyday functioning, so that there is a relationship, because that’s important for later on when we use the programme. So, you’ll often introduce the game by saying, we’re going to do this animal speeds game, where you going to do things at different speeds, and then, get them to think about times where they do things at different speeds, and where there are times where it’s good or you’re allowed to be fast and wild and jump all over the place, or whatever you want – however you want to describe it. So, maybe at the park, it’s fine to run around and climb, and swing off the monkey bars, but when is a good time to be a moderate speed? Maybe when you’re at the centre, and you’re outside playing, but you don’t want to get too overactive, or if you’re going with a walk with your mum, or some sort of example for them. Then, think about tortoise-mode: when it’s important to be really slow, calm, and methodical. So, again, maybe when you’re inside at the centre, rather than when you’re playing outside, or you might be very slow at times where you don’t really want to go somewhere, like if your mum says it’s time to leave the park, and you don’t really want to go, you might go into tortoise-mode, and you might need to speed up a bit into giraffe-mode. So, you try to relate it to their everyday functioning, so the children kind of understand the game, and what it involves.
Then, you play the game. So, you play the game – think of some different activities. What’s really important when you introduce the game, or start the game, is to try and aim it at a level that will be slightly challenging for the child, and this is a lot harder when you’re working with a group of children, of course, because there’ll be a variation within the centre, and the children, but trying to aim it sort of generally at a level that will be slightly challenging, at least for the majority of the children in the group, and then building the skill up. So, it’s kind of having that approach that comes out of the Vygotskian approach from children development around scaffolding, and building skills up over time. So, we aim at slightly challenging, and then find ways to make the game more complicated over time. So, with the animal speeds, you might make the activity that they’re doing at different speeds more complicated, or you might make them switch speeds more rapidly – something like that. Then, when you get to a point where you think you’ve kind of maxed out the skills within this game, you might have to find another game that uses similar skills, to continue to build the skill over time.
Then, the last part will be using the game as a reference when they are functioning in everyday life, so when there are times when they might be outside in the centre, and they’re being overly active, or over-excited, you might say to them, ‘Johnny, it’s time to go into giraffe-mode’, or ‘go into giraffe-mode’. Then, they will be able to associate that with the game, and should more easily be able to switch down into regulating their behaviour down. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback with this game, from parents and teachers, that it does work really well when this was something that a child really struggled with before they started doing the ENGAGE games, and now they just have to call out this ‘giraffe-mode’, for example, and the child straight away knows what that means and is able to regulate themselves.
The thinking around cognitive regulation, that’s focusing a lot more on memory, planning, organisation, so again, we have a range of games there, but a common one we would do is just doing a puzzle, which for a lot of children is actually quite challenging. Some kids love them but there’s a huge group of young children that are not particularly fans of doing puzzles, and again we use that approach of building up the skill over time. So for children that really don’t like doing a puzzle, what we’ve done in the past is just have a basic puzzle and actually, they only need to do two or three pieces each day, so we’re teaching them the strategy about starting at the corners, looking at the picture, trying to plan how you would approach the puzzle, and then getting them to do a few pieces each day, and then over time building it up, so doing more pieces per day to get to the point where they can do a whole puzzle in one sitting, and then doing more complicated puzzles over time.
Thinking about emotion regulation, we’ve got varying games that are focusing on learning to manage your emotion and calm down, but also around noticing emotions and identifying emotions, so being able to know what you’re feeling and then how to respond to that. So, we have deep breathing type exercises – just learning to slow down your breathing, for example. Or we have varying muscle relaxation exercises, so we talk about tensing and relaxing muscles, and we’ll talk to the children around how when you get upset and frustrated, you might feel quite tense and your muscles feel really hard, so we’ll tell them to tense themselves up, so sometimes we’ll say ‘screw your face up like a scary monster’, so you’re trying to get them to really tense different muscles. And then you might flop around like a tree that’s blowing in the wind, so relaxing your muscles and feeling that feeling, and then relating that to when they’re feeling stressed and tense, how they can relax through using their muscle relaxation, for example.
Dione’s conceptualisation of self-regulation clearly shows how executive function skills are essential to the different kinds of regulation – behavioural regulation, cognitive regulation, and emotional regulation. Basically, these three forms of regulation are focused on self-control in different areas – being able to control your behaviour so that it is appropriate for a given situation, being able to control your cognitive processes so that you can focus and think clearly and in an organised way, and being able to control the expression of emotion. Dione explains that executive function is associated with the pre-frontal lobe and is the part of self-regulation which focuses on the cognitive and behavioural aspects such as inhibitory control, working memory, planning, and organising. Dione offers a useful metaphor for executive function – it is like the brain’s management system, deciding where attention will be directed, what information will be held in mind, which thinking tasks will be undertaken, and in which order.
Dione provides great examples about the way in which all three parts of self-regulation (the two aspects of executive function and emotional regulation) are crucial to being successful in everyday activities such as having a conversation with a friend, playing a game, or learning new information. She also cites the research about the longitudinal outcomes for children with poor self-regulation skills, demonstrating the long-term importance of supporting children’s self-management and emotional regulation skills.
Finally, Dione gives some examples of games or activities that can be used to support children’s developing executive function skills, such as movement games and puzzles. Some really important points to take away from this video are to do with the way that games and activities to practise executive function skills should be framed and presented to children. It is essential to help children to connect the skills they are practising in the game with the everyday use of these skills, and then to refer back to and reinforce the skill learnt in the game in everyday situations. You can easily imagine the usefulness of a prompt like ‘giraffe mode’ or ‘tortoise mode’ to support children to regulate their behaviour in different situations.