It’s no secret teachers appreciate students who are able to sit still, remain attentive, think before acting, and persist with a task. These children not only make an educator’s job easier, but they’re also more likely to succeed academically than their squirmy, easily distracted peers.
However, these traits should not be confused with “good behavior.” Rather, they result from a set of mental processes that psychologists call “executive function” or “self-regulation.” As toolsofthemind.org describes, the terms refer to the capacity to control one’s impulses, both to stop doing something, if needed (even if one wants to continue doing it) and to start doing something, if needed (even if one doesn’t want to do it). When children are truly self-regulated they behave the same way whether or not an adult is watching.
Regardless, parents can have more influence than they might think on their children’s healthy development of executive function. What’s more, recent research suggests that well-designed digital media such as a computer game may improve young children’s executive function skills.
Why Does Executive Function Matter?
When a child has healthy “executive function” they succeed at cognitive activities that help people focus, manage multiple inputs, and control impulses. Children with strong executive function skills have distinct advantages in learning to read, write, and solve math problems. Having figured out how to manage their responses and impulses, these children are more likely to succeed academically and in the social realm. The capacity for self-regulation helps them negotiate friendships, cooperate in a group, and follow instructions.
With appropriate experiences at optimal stages of growth, these skills can be developed and improved. The prime window of opportunity to build the foundation for executive function occurs between the ages of 3 to 5 and skills are honed through adolescence and early adulthood.
Executive function embraces various cognitive activities: working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility. Working memory helps us remember a phone number, locate a missing pair of shoes, and follow multi-step directions. Inhibitory control kicks in when we say something nice despite being annoyed by a neighbor’s barking dog. Mental flexibility helps us switch gears, such as when we don’t have all the right ingredients for a recipe and make substitutions, such as plain yogurt for sour cream.
What Parents Can Do
Here are some ways to activate and reinforce executive function:
- Show children how to break down tasks. For example, how do you go about making a clay model of an elephant? Children need to see that it’s not just a matter of squishing clay and hoping for the best. You can help them soften the clay in their warm hands, separate it into several pieces, shape a large body, roll out small pieces to form legs, and mold other pieces into ears and a trunk.
- Guide children in following step-by-step instructions, just as you would, for example, when demonstrating how to lace up and tie shoes. Verbalizing each step as you go along supports the process, helping the child connect actions with words while reinforcing each step.
- Gradually let children take more control. For example, teach them to pick up their toys, give them plenty of practice, and eventually expect them to do so without visual or verbal reminders when playtime is over.
- Build confidence by providing opportunities for children to manage tasks on their own. Sure, they might not set the table perfectly, but if they organize napkins and silverware on the table, applaud their efforts!
Recent research suggests that well-designed digital media may improve young children’s executive function skills. One study showed that children’s engagement with a computer game increased their attentiveness and task persistence. In choosing children’s media, parents should look for interactive tools that encourage active engagement and games that require following multi-step directions. Then have children reflect, recall, and talk about what they did in using the media.
Children with greater self-control, strong working memory, and the ability to remain attentive will be well-equipped to learn. Executive function skills significantly shape a child’s readiness for kindergarten and eventual success in school. Educational experiences that emphasize what you need to learn as well as how to manage learning tasks can lead to positive outcomes. Researchers have shown a correlation between college graduation rates and children’s ability to plan ahead, stay focused, and persist with tasks.
If you have young ones at home, it’s never too soon to boost their capacity for executive function skills. Show them how to sort their belongings, stay tuned in to conversations, stick with tasks, follow multi-step instructions, and seek creative solutions to problems they encounter. Children will reap the rewards of healthy executive function throughout life.