Executive functioning is so important for preschoolers! It can be thought of as the ability for a person to control their behaviour and direct it toward larger goals, rather than doing what is automatic or easiest. Executive function involves the use of short term memory (the ability to use multiple pieces of information at one time), cognitive flexibility (the ability to change behaviour to fit a changing situation), and impulse control (interrupting a negative automatic response).
Imagine two children spy a toy cash register sitting on a shelf. They both intend to play with the toy, however, one gets to it first - and as coincidental as it may sound, if you've spent much time in the classroom, you'll know that this is really quite common! The child who gets to the cash register first is happy, but the child who doesn't possess the toy, likely isn't.
Where does executive functioning come in?
For a child who's executive functioning is less developed, this may result in the child lashing out in a number of
inappropriate ways - like physically or verbally hurting their friend. They are lacking inhibitory control. They know that hurting the other child might result in them having the toy to themselves. Their cognitive flexibility hasn't chimed in to remind them that there are other toys to play with, or that the cash register really is a two person toy, and perhaps they can take turns switching roles. They are unable to adjust their behaviour for playing at school with other children, versus playing at home on their own. Their working memory hasn't kept the pieces of information on keeping their hands calm and their words kind, or sharing with their friends.
Executive function impacts everything in a child's life!
- Cognitive flexibility allows them to think on their toes, change their behaviour as new situations or ideas are presented, and see things from another point of view.
- Inhibitory control allows them to clean up when asked, sit and listen to a story, and share control of a toy with someone, and resist the urge to strike out at others when upset.
- Working memory enables children to follow directions, particularly those with multiple steps (think getting dressed, going to the bathroom, painting a picture).
There are many factors that contribute to a child developing strong executive functioning, and many more that contribute to a child not developing it, including exposure to toxic stress and a chaotic home environment.
The good news is that the preschool years are the optimal time to work on teaching executive functioning skills! The neuroplasticity experienced by children aged 0-5 means that preschoolers are primed for brain development - teaching these skills during the preschool years is far more effective and efficient than doing it at any other time period in their lives!
See the image below for some strategies to support and develop executive functioning skills in your preschooler!
Check into the following websites to learn more about executive functioning in preschoolers: