Oct 9, 2012 by Scott Sterling

childhood brain development

In a recent webinar, Dr. William Jenkins, a leader in the field of childhood brain development and one of the founders of Scientific Learning, presented on the importance of executive functions in the development of preschool students.

As described by Dr. Jenkins, the executive functions of the brain consist of:

  • Working memory: the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind for short periods of time (e.g., remembering what happened in the beginning of a story by the time the ending comes around)
  • Inhibitory control: the ability to control inappropriate behaviors or responses (e.g., not stealing a toy from a classmate)
  • Cognitive/mental flexibility: the ability to transition from one activity to another with ease (e.g., going from a matching task to an opposites task or from playing inside to outside)

In other words, these processes are the ones that allow a small child to develop good learning habits, pay attention in class, ignore distractions, and think creatively when unexpected outcomes occur.

Where do they come from?

One of the misconceptions among preschool teachers and parents is that executive functions are inherently developed rather than taught, a product of the genetic lottery rather than learned behaviors. This is a dangerous proposition.

Studies show that these skills need to be introduced early in life and practiced in preschool in order for students to have a greater chance at academic success later in their school careers. “These skills support the process(i.e., the HOW) of learning – focusing, remembering, planning – that enables children to effectively and efficiently master the content(i.e., the WHAT),” Dr. Jenkins said.

What can an educator do?                            

The good news for educators is that we already have the tools to help address executive functions. They tend to be grouped under the heading “classroom management”.

Think about it. It requires working memory to be able to follow directions. It takes cognitive and mental flexibility to understand why we behave differently out on the playground than we do in the classroom. And nearly every classroom rule ever written is either aided or hindered by a child’s ability to inhibit their immediate needs and desires.

According to the webinar and an accompanying white paper authored by Alexandra Main, it’s never too late to address these skills with students. The prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that tends to govern executive functions - continues to develop in humans well after their twentieth birthday. Of course, by then the child is either about to graduate college or has already ended their scholastic careers.

With all of this evidence, it’s imperative that teachers in early childhood education – especially preschool teachers – rededicate themselves to instruction in these executive skills using the best practices and patience that they use during reading and math skills instruction. There are remediation opportunities for children that have fallen behind in their executive functions, including some software programs discussed in the white paper.

But if you wait too long to address these skills, their lack of success in executive functions will translate into a lack of success in the academic skills in which they will be measured later in their school careers.



For further reading:

InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning