Executive function has become a buzz word among early child educators and child care providers. You may have heard it or read about it. And you may be wondering exactly what it means and why it is important to know this word and how it applies to your child.
The term executive function is subject to some interpretation, but most professionals working in early childhood define executive function as three specific skills that help children organize and manage their thoughts and actions. These three areas consist of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these skills.
Working memory refers to a child’s ability to remember important information and use it in a functional way. An example of working memory is when you teach your child the sequence and technique for tying their shoe. Several days later, they are able to remember the steps and the techniques necessary to tie their shoes for themselves.
Cognitive flexibility, also called flexible thinking, refers to the ability to think about things in different ways. This incorporates some higher-level logic skills. A child might use cognitive flexibility in solving a problem or math problems or finding relationships between different concepts. This is a really important skill for executive function because it helps children learn every day. We might not think about it as “cognitive flexibility” but we do it all day long. As we plan out our day, solve simple problems, and shift our attention from one demand to another. An example of cognitive flexibility is when a child learns his letter sounds and understands that the letter “C” has two sounds, while the letter “F” only has one. The ability to use flexible thinking allows children to learn and assimilate new information.
Inhibitory control is simply self-control. It is often the most challenging and important part of executive function. Inhibitory control is the child’s ability to resist temptations, ignore distractions and not act impulsively. This skill grows as the child matures. This skill helps children listen in class, follow directions and not yell out of turn. This is also a very important skill to support new learning.
When your child has more advanced executive function, higher level skills can be learned and applied and new learning can occur. It is never too early to start teaching executive function skills!
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