Executive-Function Skills in Preschool and Prekindergarten

Our Preschool and Prekindergarten curriculum programs now include activities intended to focus on helping young children develop skills that fall within the realm of executive function.  


What is executive function?

Infants are completely dependent on the people who care for them for support. Infants’ behavior is also dependent on events that are beyond their conscious control. However, instead of choosing what to focus on when, infants’ attention seems to be captured by whatever happens to get their attention at the time. Instead of acting in response to these events, infants react. 


By the time an infant has reached his or her toddler years, a transformation has occurred. The dependent and reactive infant has become a willful toddler able to express preferences. Although still reactive to a certain degree, most toddlers are capable of keeping a goal in mind and persisting in reaching that goal. By the time a toddler has reached the preschool years, he or she is able to express preferences verbally and is for the most part able to follow verbal rules and consider other points of view.


Scientists who study conscious control often refer to it as “executive function.” Simply stated, executive function refers to making decisions and carrying them out, for example, when purposely trying to solve a problem. Executive-function skills include but are not limited to the development of self-regulation, attention, persistence, and flexibility. 


Why is helping children develop executive-function skills important in the early years?

Research indicates that skills associated with executive function are more important than academic skills such as early math or reading skills when it comes to preparing children for kindergarten and beyond. Indeed, executive-function skills are often referred to as “school-readiness skills.” 


What kinds of activities in the Preschool and Prekindergarten programs help children develop executive-function skills?

In addition to the developmentally appropriate thematic activities that occur throughout each week, these daily activities also help foster executive-function skills: 


  • Daily whole-group routines: Everyday routine activities in the morning and afternoon, such as identifying who’s here each day, discussing what children will do each day, and creating the “What We Learned Today Note” at the end of each day, help focus children’s attention, reinforce working memory, and help develop self-regulation, to name just a few executive-function skills highlighted.
  • Daily small-group activities: Activities during which the teacher works with small groups of children at a time offer opportunities for children to practice executive-function skills such as thinking before acting (response inhibition), planning, organization, persistence, and flexibility.




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