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What and why Executive functioning important for children’s learning?

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What is Executive Functioning (EF)?

  • A set of higher order cognitive processes that aid in planning, regulating, and controlling behaviour 
  • Refers to the process of learning, rather than the content
  • Having good executive skills is the biological foundation of learning
  • EF is more predictive for success than IQ.

What does it mean to have good EF skills?

  • The ability to pursue goals and ignore distractions
  • Allows children to focus, follow direction and handle emotions etc.
  • Allows children to learn what they want, whenever they want 
  • Executive skills are required in accomplishing whatever our intelligence commands
    • i.e., simple to complex tasks
    • E.g. Doing dishes, starting a conversation, solving a math problem, cooking, starting and running a business
  • Executive functioning prepares the child for formal academic
  • For a child to be ready for formal academics, they must first be able to pay attention, behave appropriately and process the information that is being passed to

“Coming to school with a solid base of these foundational executive function skills is more important that whether children know their letters and numbers” 

-Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Understanding EF deeper

Executive functioning skills mainly consists of these three aspects:

1-     Working memory

  •       The capacity to retain information in one’s memory for a short time

2-   Inhibitory control

  •       The capacity to control oneself, to concentrate, and inhibit distractions (e.g., ability to self-regulate- know how to respond to situations instead of reacting impulsively)

3-   Cognitive flexibility

  •       The capacity to detect one’s errors, to correct them, and be creative

Problems that arise with poor EF skills

  • poor impulse control
  • difficulty following directions
  • Trouble maintaining focus on tasks
  • General  behavioural, social, and academic problems 

The Development of EF in children

  • believed to be a slow and gradual
  • children advance from reflective and reactive responses to goal-directed and self-regulatory behaviours
  • Rapid development in this part of the brain between 2 to 5 years of age
  • individual differences in EF emerge between ages 2 and 3

What contributes to the development of EF

  • Genetics
  • Brain plasticity – the rapid growth and malleability of the brain during the early years
  • Environmental influences

What can we do to promote the development of EF

1-Parenting style

  • Being sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs
  • Commenting appropriately to child’s mental states
  • Providing opportunities to develop the child’s self-regulation skills

“Controlling, demanding, and punitive environments can inhibit EF growth by depriving children of opportunities to regulate their own behaviour and requiring them to continually adapt to another’s perspective.”
(Talwar, Carlson, & Lee, 2011)

2- Supporting Autonomy

  • Young children begin to show their interest to do things independently
  • Support their drive to gain autonomy by arranging the environment appropriately
  • The Montessori method promotes autonomy by teaching practical life skills (Read more)

3- Communication

  • Attention-directing behaviours 
  • Verbal scaffolding
    • Includes, prompting, questioning, and praising the child 

4- Play

Through free, child-directed play, children learn how to 

  • retain information in ways that are meaningful to them
  • they learn how to ignore distractions 
  • they learn how to solve problems and be creative

Encourage all types of play (e.g. pretend play, symbolic play, construction play etc.)


Executive Function and Self-regulation by Centre of Developing Child at Harvard University (Link)

Nathanson, Amy & Aladé, Fashina & Sharp, Molly & Rasmussen, Eric & Christy, Katheryn. (2014). The Relation Between Television Exposure and Executive Function Among Preschoolers. Developmental psychology. 50. 10.1037/a0035714. (link)

Talwar, V., Carlson, S. M., & Lee, K. (2011). Effects of punitive environ-
ment on children’s executive functioning: A natural experiment. Social
Development, 20, 805–824. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2011.00617.x

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