Executive Functioning

Written by Seth Pozzi, Head of School on .

Executive Functioning (EF) is a really big buzzword in education and social science research right now. It’s a term researchers use to encompass several brain-related functions that are shown to have a significant impact on children’s future success. Children who display higher levels of executive function skills are more likely to finish college, be employed in a good job, have more successful relationships with a spouse or partner, be a better parent, and have fewer health problems in later life.

You’re probably thinking, “Where do I sign?” “I want that for my child!” The good news is that EF develops over time, and we all play a role in helping to develop it in our children. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, EF is a group of skills that help us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time and revise plans as necessary. These skills include: 

  • Working memory - the ability to hold onto and manipulate multiple pieces of information over a short period of time
  • Cognitive flexibility - the ability to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings
  • Perspective taking
  • Impulse control - the ability to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses
  • Delayed gratification - directing attention and effort toward longer term goals, rather than what’s easy to accomplish NOW

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has a wonderful video on executive functioning that I highly recommend to any teacher, parent and caregiver. Last month, our entire staff from both the Collins and Oxnard campus viewed the video together and engaged in professional learning about brain development and on developing executive functioning in children. We are very excited to integrate executive functioning development into all areas of the program and curriculum. Your child’s teacher can share ideas for fostering executive functioning outside of school (a few suggestions are listed below).

How do we build executive functioning in school?

  •  Circle Time/Morning Meeting
  •  Predictable routines
  •  Organized environments
  •  Clear rules and behavior expectations
  •  Games and songs that require turn taking, memory, sequencing, or stop/start actions
  •  Open-ended creative play
  •  Continually increase time on task
  •  Student-centered classrooms/student-led activities
  •  Involve child in solving problems/promote perspective taking
  •  Open-ended questioning

 How can you build executive functioning at home?

The rule of thumb is to avoid doing things for your child that they could do for themselves. If it is something they will have to do independently at school, then try to avoid doing it for them at home. This can include:

  • Feeding child or cutting their food (when age appropriate)
  • Pouring water, milk, etc.
  • Letting them walk instead of being carried
  • Putting on jacket
  • Carrying backpack (allowing them to struggle a little is an investment toward future independence!)
  • Picking up toys

Harvard's Center on the Developing Child also suggests that you can help your child develop EF through SOAR:

Support imagination: Being able to step outside of the present moment is a key aspect of executive function. It is easier to use good executive functioning when thinking about a problem as if it was happening to another person rather than to oneself.

Offer choices within limits: Avoid telling your child what he or she is going to eat for breakfast (no choice) or asking your child what he or she wants for breakfast (unlimited choice). You might ask if your child wants cereal, oatmeal, or eggs (choices within limits).

Assist reflection: Talk with your child about options available and the consequences of different choices. When your child interacts with others, talk about emotions that other people may be feeling and how other people’s point of view may be different than your child’s. 

Raise activity levels: Increases blood flow to brain and reduces stress. Many exercises are also good practice for executive function skills such as body awareness and control, remembering rules, and controlling emotions.


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