These techniques used by educators to teach "executive function" will help your child succeed at practically anything.

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
September 03, 2014
Boy's silhouette
Credit: Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

It's playtime at The Shirley G. Moore Laboratory School, a preschool at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development -- and there's a standoff brewing in the block corner. That's where a 4-year-old boy wearing a policeman's cap is carrying a miniature pet carrier containing a stuffed puppy. All around him, children are creating their own little worlds, from a house made of blond-wood blocks to a volcano capped with an orange scarf.

As the boy looks for a space in this creative hubbub, a girl wearing a purple dress from the costume chest marches over and also grabs the carrier's handle. The two stare at each other, but neither loosens their grip. Ten wordless seconds pass. Twenty seconds. Other kids notice a potential tussle brewing, but they don't interfere. Neither do the teachers.

The two children continue their silent face-off for a full minute; you can almost see their emotions flash like thought bubbles above them: I really want to play with this. So do I. Can we do it together? Probably not. Then what do we do? Finally, the boy lets go of the carrier and moves on to help with the volcano. The girl sits down, takes out the puppy, and invites other children to join her.

It's an everyday moment, but to the teachers, this interaction is evidence that these two young children are doing their work. That's because their negotiation occurred with no pushing, arguing, or crying. Instead, each child found a way to come to terms with his and her competing desires by thinking the situation through. The boy realized he didn't want to play with the toy enough to resort to behavior that was out of the accepted standards of the classroom. And the girl got what she wanted by waiting it out.

Everything in the Lab School's environment, from the sand and water tables to the dress-up corner, is designed to encourage students to have the kind of purposeful interactions that help them carry through with a plan, internalize rules and expectations, control impulsive behavior, and stay focused. Play, in the school's view, isn't a simple matter of having fun. Instead, it's helping kids develop what is now referred to in child-development circles as executive function (EF) skills.

While this may sound like the curriculum for an M.B.A. course in corporate management, it is during the preschool years that these cognitive and emotion-regulation skills are introduced and learned. (It's so crucial to this age group, in fact, that Sesame Street included this concept as a curriculum focus for a recent season.) EF is a neuroscience term that refers to a person's ability to organize thoughts, plan behaviors, say no to impulses, and manage between what she's feeling and what she does. When you write an e-mail about the steps your team needs to take to meet a deadline, that's EF. So is deciding not to hit Send when you realize that your snarky text could insult your sister. "If the brain is a symphony, then executive function is the conductor," explains Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Put another way, "executive function is the brain wrestling with its emotions," says Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development & Social Policy at Yale's Child Study Center. "Do I want to follow my first instinct or do I want to create a strategy that might work better? For young children, sometimes that means using their words, or getting the help of an adult, or realizing there's another toy they'd be happy playing with."

A child's ability to use executive function is a strong indicator of success in both school and life. Experts point to a now-classic 1972 Stanford University study in which children between the ages of 3 and 5 were offered a marshmallow and told that if they could resist eating it for 15 minutes, they'd be given a second one. Follow-up studies over the next decades showed that the children who weren't able to delay gratification had higher rates of behavior problems in school and grew up to have a greater incidence of drug abuse. On the other hand, the kids who could wait 15 minutes to get the second marshmallow scored an average of 210 points higher on the SATs.

In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than IQ tests do. And research done at Pennsylvania State University and the University of British Columbia found that kindergartners with strong executive function skills outperform their peers in a variety of areas, particularly math.

Unfortunately, many American kids may have fewer opportunities than they used to for developing executive function skills. Testing standards mean that more and more preschool and elementary-school class time is spent learning academics and less on the kind of play and social and emotional skills that promote EF. "The schools want better outcomes for our kids, so they're doing something that seems logical on the surface, which is that they start academics earlier and spend more time on them," says Adele Diamond, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. "It makes intuitive sense, but if a school ignores social, emotional, and physical needs, it will work against achieving those academic goals." By contrast, Dr. Diamond points out, children in Finland's much-lauded primary schools don't start elementary school until they are 7 years old. What are they doing before that? Riding bikes, helping on farms, or playing at home or in state-sponsored child-care centers and preschools.

Experts agree that preschool and kindergarten are a crucial time to boost a child's EF because those skills are so essential for a child to succeed in school. "If you start school blurting out answers, jumping out of your seat, or not paying attention or completing your assignments, you're reprimanded by the teacher and you receive poor grades," says Dr. Diamond. "You come to expect that school is a place of failure and shame for you. But a child who is able to sit in her seat and raise her hand and pay attention gets praised and starts to think, 'Hey, I can succeed here. I want to be part of this.' "

Getting young kids to control their impulses and consider consequences may feel like a lofty goal -- but these strategies can help.

Helpful Strategies

Choose a preschool that promotes executive functioning

Ask the director of any preschool you're considering for its philosophy on how to best develop social and emotional skills, suggests Dr. Gilliam. If you hear terms such as "play-based" and "child-directed," those are good signs. A teacher who knows how to encourage executive functioning sees her role not as an authority figure telling children what to do, but as a helper or guide who supports them as they figure out how to solve problems on their own, says Parents advisor Robert Pianta, Ph.D., dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Many play-based preschools, especially those that are influenced by the Reggio-Emilia approach, are excellent places to learn EF skills. Montessori schools accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale also are praised by executive function experts.

Tell stories

Take occasional breaks from reading picture books with your child and make up a tale of your own. Not feeling creative? Sit across from him and read the book, looking up at your child as much as possible, as if you are telling the story. The conversation is as beneficial as the story. Or listen to audio books in the car. The act of listening without visual aids requires kids to exercise concentration skills and work hard to pay attention, hold the plot in mind, and remember what they've learned about the characters, explains Dr. Diamond.

Control yourself

Barking at our kids when they annoy us won't help them manage their own emotions. Instead, try modeling executive function by saying, "I'm feeling frustrated and like I'm going to yell. But I don't want to do that, so I'll take a few minutes to calm down." Likewise, draw attention to your children's impulse-control triumphs. Peg Dawson, Ed.D., coauthor of Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential, suggests trying, "I like the way you figured out a solution when I said no to TV. You wanted to watch, but instead decided to draw. It's great that you didn't lose it when you didn't get what you wanted."

Wait it out

Parents don't always prioritize teaching their children patience -- a key executive skill because you have to inhibit a behavior you want to do. If your child interrupts others at the dinner table, print out some simple drawings of an ear and one of a mouth. Everyone gets the ear drawing except the speaker. Explain that "ears don't talk, ears listen." With that concrete reminder, even preschoolers are able to stop themselves from talking, and listen. And remember to praise your child when he's been a good listener.

Know when to let it go

All of us have less control over our behavior when we're tired or stressed out. Don't expect your child to practice EF skills if she's already close to a meltdown.

Practice practicing

Psychologist David Walsh, Ph.D., founder of Mind-Positive Parenting, has a saying: "Whatever the brain does a lot of is what the brain gets good at." In other words, whether it's setting the table or learning a martial art, doing something over and over again helps children improve their discipline, perseverance, and concentration.

Is Your Child on Track?

Your kid may already be doing some of the things that exhibit good EF skills. Dr. Walter Gilliam shares examples of common milestones.

1 to 2 years: Plays simple interaction games (peekaboo, pat-a-cake); engages in goal-directed behavior (looking for a hidden object, crawling to obtain a toy); communicates desires with gestures (pointing to an object); follows basic directions.

3 to 4 years: Pays attention to a storybook for up to three minutes; assigns roles to others in pretend play; labels feelings in herself or others.

4 to 5 years: Asks about future events; takes turns and follows simple rules in games; shows the ability to decide between two or three similarly desirable options; can delay gratification and wait for small periods of time.

5 to 6 years: Will make a card or give a compliment just to make someone else happy; respects simple rules in games ("It's not your turn"); begins to distinguish between fantasy and reality; can calm on her own; can follow simple multistep instructions.

6 to 7 years: Uses language rather than behaviors alone to express strong feelings; plans how to spend time on his own; enjoys engaging in cooperative play, such as building a fort of blocks with a friend.

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