Why is My Child Being Taught “Executive Skills" in Kindergarten?

Why is My Child Being Taught “Executive Skills" in Kindergarten?

The term "executive function" is popular in education and psychology, but you may be thinking, “Why does my child need to learn executive skills in kindergarten?”

Executive function skills are actually essential for self-regulating behavior that governs a child’s emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning, such as brushing your teeth, remembering what to pack in your backpack, and following a teacher’s instructions. Having strong executive function skills allows a child to accomplish tasks necessary for success in school and beyond. Students with weaker executive function skills may become disorganized and overwhelmed by multi-step processes, which makes it difficult for them to prioritize and organize schoolwork, pay attention in class, or get ready for school in the morning.

Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the more outwardly measurable aspects of executive function in early childhood by focusing on the subareas often referred to as self-regulation. Working memory, attention, and inhibition control are three key areas to develop in early childhood, as being strong in these areas is highly predictive of academic success.

  • Working memory allows a child to remember directions and plan solutions to a problem.

  • Cognitive flexibility allows a child to shift attention from one idea to another while ignoring distractions from the outside.

  • Inhibition control allows a child to stop one response in favor of a better approach to a problem or situation.

Can we practice these skills?

The short answer is yes! Many typical childhood games and activities are actually ways to strengthen executive function skills.

For instance, Dr. Megan McClelland, an expert in early childhood development and school readiness, created the Heads Toes Knees Shoulders (HTKS) assessment with colleagues. This simple self-regulation skills assessment, based on the common childhood song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” has been used worldwide to measure behavioral self-regulation of young children and is a quick and accurate indicator of academic growth (when assessed at multiple time points over the year) and school readiness in children transitioning from pre-K to kindergarten.

To conduct this assessment with your own students, first play a standard round of "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" wherein children touch the part of their body that corresponds to the word being sung. Then switch up the game and tell students, “When I say 'knees,' touch your head, and when I say 'shoulders,' touch your toes.” See if your students are able to inhibit the urge to touch their knees and shoulders, respectively.

Another common game that can be used to test inhibitory control and attention is “Simon Says,” in which you instruct students to only copy your actions if you preface them with the words “Simon Says.” For additional ideas, Understood.org—the website of an organization that supports parents of children with attention difficulties—lists dozens of games, activities, and strategies for improving working memory, attention, and organizational skills, such as visualizing thoughts and chunking information to improve memory, making up own rules for favorite games to practice cognitive flexibility, and playing games like Jenga that require impulse control.

For a whole self-regulation-focused curriculum, draw from “Tools of the Mind,” developed by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong. A fundamental component of this curriculum is the importance of scaffolding a child’s ability to learn about their own learning. In addition to games like the “Freeze Game” (similar to “Simon Says” but with increasingly complex signals of when to move and when not to), students are scaffolded (guided) through their daily activities with tasks like creating “Play Plans” and “Learning Plans.” With this self-planning, students have the opportunity to stop, think, and draw or write what they plan to do, then self- and peer-evaluate to determine when a goal has been achieved and how closely they stuck to their original plan. These planning activities help students’ attention, metacognition (thinking about thinking), and ability to regulate behavior.

In sum, “executive function” is a very grown-up term for very essential early childhood skills. The good news is these skills are strengthened with games and activities that your young students will likely be very happy to practice.

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