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Hocus-Pocus, Time to Focus!

By Too Small to Fail

Executive Function

If you watch several preschoolers for a while, you may notice a difference in the way they focus on activities like dressing themselves or stacking blocks. Some may have long enough attention spans to quickly complete the tasks at hand, while some may get frustrated or distracted and give up early. The ability of young children to manage tasks like these is related to what researchers call “executive function” of the brain—the ability to control impulses, to concentrate for long periods of time, and to master complicated tasks.

Executive function develops in infancy, and is responsible for helping our brains manage multiple streams of information at the same time. In children, executive function governs self-control and concentration. As children grow into adulthood, these skills help them with a number of activities including managing stress, memorization, following instructions, problem solving and regulating emotions. Researchers have found that children with poorly developed executive function tend to have more behavioral problems and difficulty in school, whereas children with highly developed executive function know how to focus on tasks at hand and get along well with others. According to some studies, highly developed executive function is a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ.

Many factors play a critical role in the development of executive function, and parents can help young children develop these skills in simple ways early on. For example, by establishing routines, parents and caregivers can help children feel secure and learn how to manage their emotions. Games that encourage following rules—like “Simon Says”—or that encourage memorization also improve executive function. And the more that parents talk, read and sing to their children, the more children learn how to communicate their thoughts effectively with adults and peers.

Dual language learning can also help with executive function by training the brain to juggle multiple ideas and vocabulary simultaneously. With practice and plenty of love from parents and caregivers, children can learn the skills they will need to succeed in life.

Resources for Sharing:

  • This article from Parents explains how executive function works, and how parents can encourage its development.
  • This article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers tips and fun activities for parents to use with young children to improve memory and inhibit impulses.

VIDEO: The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University highlights experts, educators and children as they explore executive function. >>

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