In this part we look at executive function, a set of cognitive and behavioural skills which underlie what we think of as children’s self-management, self-control, or self-regulation skills, and which are essential in supporting children in their social and emotional competencies. Being able to refrain from hitting out when frustrated, or paying attention to someone when they are talking to you, are all skills that depend on executive function, which is why we spend some time unpacking this term in this part of the course.
Our aims for this part of the course are:
- To understand the different components of executive function, and how these support social and emotional competence
- To be aware of some strategies to enhance children’s executive function skills
This will involve:
- Reading about executive function
- Watching a video in which Dr Dione Healey explains how executive function links to self-regulation and describes a programme (ENGAGE) designed to support these skills
- Watching two videos with teachers using ENGAGE discuss their experience of the programme
- Reading about supporting children’s self-management skills
- Reflecting on links between children’s self-management skills and a positive social and emotional climate
- Putting your learning into practice by assessing and planning for children’s executive function skills in your setting.
You can also access more ideas for enhancing children’s executive function skills in our further reading section, and follow links to webinars on the topic. We also offer an opportunity to discuss how well your current practice supports children to develop executive function skills through our online forum.
Revisit your learning so far
What are some of the specific actions that teachers can take to foster children’s friendships?
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.
Watch a video
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 ENGAGEprogramme. 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.
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.
Think back to the games described in the reading (Red Light, Purple Light, and the Sleeping Game) and think about how you might frame and present these games to children. How would you highlight the executive function skills being practised in the game (cognitive flexibility, working memory, inhibitory control)? In what ways could you link these skills to everyday situations?
Watch a video
In this video, Sita Lolohea and Fara Ortiz from Lifewise Early Childhood Centre in Auckland talk about their use of the ENGAGE materials for teaching self-regulation and executive function skills in their daily practice with children, and the impact they have noticed that this has had on the children in their setting.
About Sita Lolohea and Fara Ortiz
Sita believes that children need the assurance of being loved and cared for, and deserve to be treated respectfully. She is committed to supporting environments that foster self-confidence, trust, creativity, autonomy, and acceptance of individual differences, and she knows children need the support of teachers to guide and engage with them and assist them to develop in positive directions.
Fara’s philosophy, aligned with that of the centre, sees her striving to enable every young child to grow as a whole person. Fara links this to Te Whāriki and supports children to become competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, and secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to New Zealand as a multi-cultural society. She sees the development of social and emotional competence as critical to their development.
Sita and Fara are convinced about the difference that using the ENGAGE programme with their children has made. They note in particular that children have a stronger sense of wellbeing, but also that they have improved social skills and better inhibitory control, or the ability to control impulses, demonstrated by their ability to wait and take turns. Children have learned how to calm themselves down and think properly before they react to events.
Sita mentions how important it is to children that teachers get involved with the games too. This has become crucial to the successful implementation of the ENGAGE games in their centre. It seems that the teachers’ and children’s shared enjoyment of the games helps strengthen relationships and contributes to a positive social and emotional climate in the centre in which children feel safe, secure, and valued. You will remember from Part 2 of the course that having a strong social and emotional climate is really important for children’s sense of wellbeing. It supports children in positive behaviour and high levels of engagement in the setting, and offers models of positive social and emotional skills. Both teachers testify to the children’s enjoyment of and insistence upon the games as a source of joy and wellbeing.
Watch a video
In this short video, Barbara Dunn, who we met in Part 2, talks about the way she structures one particular ENGAGE game, Memory, and generally describes the benefits her teaching team have found using the ENGAGE programme with children in her kindergarten.
Barbara says that using the ENGAGE programme in her kindergarten has quickly moved children into a space of greater self-control. She describes children as having difficulty with behaviours such as demanding and grabbing, but quickly making progress in executive function skills so that they understand and can take turns, stop and think about what they are doing, and manage their emotions better by using techniques and skills such as deep breathing.
It is worth noting some of the detail regarding the teaching talk Barbara provides when playing Memory with children. Memory supports the executive function skills of paying attention (watching the game, including other players’ turns), and working memory (trying to remember where cards have been seen before), as well as the general skills of inhibiting your impulse to have a turn and instead wait for your turn. Rather than just play the game with children, Barbara uses teaching talk very intentionally to promote and highlight executive function skills and to coach children to become better at them. She talks about developing a ‘memory muscle’ and reminds children to ‘keep a memory’ or a ‘reminder’ about where a card is, in case they see its pair flipped over on someone else’s turn. With this kind of coaching, the children’s thinking and ability to focus really grows.
In this next piece we build on the idea of executive function as a crucial part of children’s behavioural, cognitive, and emotional regulation skills, which are drawn together in strong self-management skills and support children as learners and as members of their early childhood setting’s community.
Supporting children’s self-management skills
Self-managing learners are able to make choices, persist, solve problems for themselves, access resources for their play ideas, and use social skills to get others to help them. The aim of self-management is for children to be self-regulated rather than teacher-regulated, that is, to be able to determine the best course of action for themselves rather than following rules set by a teacher. Self-management skills require cognitive abilities such as planning, thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and managing attention.
Children may struggle with self-management because the areas of the brain responsible for executive function skills are not fully developed in early childhood. This means that children may be impulsive, distractible, and poor at planning, and require high levels of support.
Self-management skills are supported by:
- Clear boundaries and consistent rules and routines so that children can understand behavioural expectations. Memory aids or visuals can be helpful, or you might try checklists that children use to monitor their own progress.
- Supporting children’s self-management skills characterised by warmth, so that children feel safe to explore, make choices and try out new things.
- Discussions with whānau to ensure that expectations for self-management are culturally appropriate.
- Expectations for positive outcomes from using self-managing behaviours, visualising, and planning for success. This can be reinforced by specific feedback about useful self-managing behaviours that highlight the relationship between children’s self-managing behaviours and positive outcomes.
- Clear teaching of particular routines for self-management, such as routines for washing hands, and support for children until they can apply rules or routines without direction.
- Children taking responsibility for managing their own activities. Encourage children to determine and monitor rules for a game or activity for each other. Resist supplying children with ideas, but instead present the decision about what to do as a problem they can solve for themselves by making interesting choices.
- Reassurance and support when children’s initiated ideas and attempts at self-management don’t work out.
Click here to read the referenced version of this research review.
What links do you see between children with strong self-managing behaviours and a positive social and emotional climate as described in Part 2?
Relate your learning to practice
Use the games below to inquire into children’s executive function skills (inhibition/impulse control, working memory and cognitive flexibility) in your setting.
- Infants: How well do children inhibit their anticipatory reactions at the end of a rhyme like Round and round the garden?
- Toddlers: How well can toddlers inhibit alternative actions in order to play a game like Follow the leader in which they have to copy the leader’s actions?
- Young children: How well can children manage excitement and stay calm in a game of Grandma’s Footsteps or Sleeping Lions? Or how well can children respond to a game in which they have to move at different speeds according to the name of the animal called out?
- Infants: How well can children hold in mind the location of a toy that they watch you hide? Do they know where to look for it?
- Toddlers: How well do toddlers remember what action to complete according to different cues in games like Ring-a-ring-a-rosy, Jack in the box, or Sleeping bunnies?
- Young children: How well can children remember additive songs in which additional parts are added as the song grows? Or how well can they hold clapping patterns in mind and repeat them back to you?
- Toddlers and young children: How well can children adjust to changing rules for sorting a group of objects? For example, after they sort a set of counters by size, can they then sort the same set by colour? Or how well can they adjust their behaviour when you change the rules in a game, such as the behaviours to match with a specific cue?
After investigating children’s strengths and needs in relation to executive function, choose which area of executive function you would like to strengthen. Plan two additional games or activities to practise with children and build into your daily routines. You might find the resource guides on games and activities to strengthen executive function in infants and toddlers, and in children aged 3 – 5 (also in the Further Reading section) helpful here.
In this part of the course, we learned that:
- Executive function is a set of interrelated cognitive skills and processes: cognitive flexibility, attention and inhibitory control, and working memory.
- Cognitive flexibility involves the ability to switch attention between different tasks and to adapt behaviours to different circumstances or rules.
- Attention and inhibitory control involve being able to concentrate and focus, ignoring distractions and controlling impulses.
- Working memory or holding information in mind enables thinking with several pieces of information at the same time.
- Executive function and emotional regulation together make up the broader set of skills known as self-regulation (which is also sometimes referred to as self-management or self-control).
- Executive function skills are important for children’s success in educational settings (in both the short- and long-term), and are associated with long-term mental and physical health, effective social communication, and academic performance.
- Executive function skills can be improved with practice, and are particularly malleable in early childhood.
How often are you and your team playing executive function games and activities (like Memory or Pairs, or jigsaw puzzles) in your daily practice, and, before this part of the course, how aware were you that these games built up executive function skills? Use our online forum to discuss this topic with other course participants.
Watch this video in which Dione Healey talks about the development of the ENGAGE programme.
For practical ideas and strategies, check out our guides to games and activities to strengthen executive function in infants and toddlers, and in children aged 3 – 5.
Our handy infographic summarises some of the key ideas about executive function.
You might like to listen to Megan McClelland and Shauna Tominey discuss executive function and its relation to positive behaviour in this webinar.
You can also learn more about the ENGAGE programme here.