Over the past few weeks, millions of children across the United States began kindergarten. Whether graduating from a full-day preschool or parent-led homeschool or something in between, children will transition into their first year of a formal school setting in various stages of school readiness. What will determine a successful transition? Research shows one foundational factor: executive function.
What is executive function? Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
To put this in a real-life classroom context: imagine 3 kindergarteners participating at circle time. Abby and James are focusing on the discussion and raise their hands to answer the teacher’s question. Michael is distracted, interrupts repeatedly and has a hard time remembering what to do. It is clear which of these children will be more successful at the learning activity, and the latest research links this with executive function skills.
There is a dramatic window for growth in executive function and other cognitive skills between the ages of 3 to 5. We know now that development of these skills is not guaranteed and children with problems do not necessarily outgrow them. Children who struggle to plan and organize their work in early elementary may become adolescents who fall behind in homework, have difficulty completing projects and struggle to gain academic skills. In particular, economically disadvantaged groups tend to suffer from under-development of these skills, which puts them behind even prior to entering elementary school. Severe under-development may also lead to behavioral problems and in some cases, failure in school, as many teachers are not trained to recognize or treat these problems effectively. This reinforces the ‘achievement gap’ that already exists for at-risk groups in underserved communities—since those with behavioral challenges are often kept out of classroom work, and in turn may have trouble attending when in class.
The potential impact for early intervention during the pre-school and early elementary years is huge. Identifying deficits and building executive function and cognitive skills at the age-appropriate time could alleviate problems faced by at-risk groups. If these children, for example, are increasingly able to attend to class material and participate in group lessons, they will benefit from increased learning as well as better relationships with teachers and peers. Rather than laying a foundation as children who are frequently struggling to participate, these children may begin a positive cycle of engagement with teachers and peers.
Thus, these skills are a necessary groundwork to the building of academic skills, rather than simply an add-on. On the bright side, science has shown these skills can be trained and improve even with short-term interventions. Researchers who specialize in childhood brain development are working to spread the word to help parents and caregivers through books like “Einstein Never Used Flashcards” and initiatives like Vroom and Mind in the Making. A tablet-based app, “Kiko’s Thinking Time” was developed with support from the US Department of Education to target executive function and other cognitive skills through fun, adaptive games.
The importance of building executive function and other cognitive skills at an early age is clear. We want children to build a strong foundation to become engaged and self-directed lifelong learners. We need to increase awareness of these skills and the potential for them to be explicitly taught by parents, caregivers and the educator community – whether it be through outreach programs, educational apps or other interventions. The sooner we make this a priority, the better equipped our communities will be to help children get the most out of their school experience.