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ECE Resources

Executive function and supporting positive behaviour in early childhood

In our webinar with Professor Megan McClelland and Dr Shauna Tominey from the University of Oregon, they discussed the importance of executive function skills, how these skills develop in young children and how ECE teachers can support their development. Here are the key insights from this webinar.

What are executive function skills?

Executive function skills, in a nutshell, help children to ‘stop and think first’.  Executive function is related to self-regulation, but focuses specifically on the cognitive aspects of self-regulation. The three main components of executive function are cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. Cognitive flexibility, particularly in young children, is related to the ability to stop and transition to another activity, and it includes the ability to know what to focus on and resist distractions. Working memory is the ability to take in, retain and use instructions (for example, keeping multiple sequential steps in mind). Inhibitory control is the ability resist acting on impulse.

It is important to be aware that what look like problem behaviours in children may actually be a lack of executive function skills.

Why is executive function important?

Executive function skills are a foundational set of skills that set children up for success. Indeed, executive function skills in early childhood are a better predictor of university completion than literacy and numeracy skills. Executive function can be seen as the ‘how you learn’ skills that help children take in what they learn. Executive function is also deeply related to emotional wellbeing, and emotional regulation relies on executive function skills.

How can teachers support children to practise and use their executive function skills?

Because executive function skills are so crucial to children’s ability to thrive at school and in life, they need to be taught, practised and reinforced in multiple ways and multiple contexts. It is more effective to embed routines and activities for developing executive function in existing programmes throughout the day rather than trying to teach it as a discrete set of skills. One of the most effective strategies is to ‘speak your inner voice out loud’ or articulate your thinking as you do things. Music, songs, rhymes and games are also strong tools for developing executive function.

Warm, supportive relationships are essential to developing executive function. Teachers can co-regulate and scaffold children to use their executive function skills without prompting by setting up the learning environment appropriately. Visual cues can be useful to reinforce verbal instructions and cues, particularly when an activity has multiple steps: for example, a poster that explains the steps for hand-washing could be placed near hand basins, and teachers could refer to it explicitly when they or the children wash their hands.

Teachers can also use strategies that focus on developing the different components of executive function. For example, shared attention is an excellent way to develop cognitive flexibility. Memory games, such as remembering a set of objects or remembering the instructions in a game, are useful for building working memory. Freeze games are useful for developing inhibitory control, particularly when the instructions become increasingly complex as the game proceeds.

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