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Executive Function Skills and Their Role in Early Learning

Young children who are in our care are developing important foundational skills that will set them up for later learning. These skills will help children to be successful in elementary school and into adulthood. One of the most important sets of skills that young children are learning are executive function skills, also known as self-regulation skills. These help children control impulses, maintain focused attention, follow instructions, and recall information — all of which are a part of learning and developing relationships.

In this article, we dig deeper into what executive function means and how we can support young children in developing these important skills.

What are Executive Function Skills?

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive functioning, also referred to as self-regulation skills, are “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

These skills allow us to set goals and work towards achieving them. According to understood.org, executive function is responsible for many skills, including…

  • Paying attention

  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing

  • Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion

  • Understanding different points of view

  • Regulating emotions

  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing).

Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on the following three types of brain function…

  1. Working memory, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

  2. Mental flexibility, also referred to as “flexible thinking,” which helps us sustain or shift attention in response to different demands, or to apply different rules in different settings.

  3. Self-control, which enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

To learn more, check out the video below from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Why is Executive Function Important in Early Learning?

Executive function skills are foundational, meaning that they are the building blocks for more complex learning and self-regulation. Children are not born with these skills, but they are born with the potential to develop them and they will continue to develop them throughout life. Learning these skills begins during infancy;  we continue to build on them as we grow.

Skills for Academics & Friendships

The Center on the Developing Child points to the fact that “increasingly competent executive functioning during childhood and adolescence enables children to plan and act in a way that makes them good students, classroom citizens, and friends.” Executive function skills like remembering things we’ve learned, focusing on a task, managing frustration, and filtering out distractions, are central to learning and academics. Because executive function skills help children control impulses and maintain flexibility, they are also crucial for forming successful friendships with peers.

The support we provide during a child’s earliest years thus have a significant impact on that child’s success in school and in life.

When Children Struggle with Executive Function Skills

Children who are struggling with self-regulation skills can find it difficult to be part of a classroom.  They can demonstrate challenging behaviors that might appear as not following instructions, reacting physically (hitting, biting, etc.) when another child does something to upset them, or not paying attention during circle time.

When these children are disciplined with time-out or removal from the group, it can become even more difficult for them to practice learning these critical skills. Children who are left out of learning activities also miss out on opportunities to practice foundational executive function skills, creating a negative cycle of worsening challenges and frustrations.

How Can We Support Children in Developing these Skills?

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child advises that  “Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships.”

Practicing executive function skills can begin as early as infancy and can continue through activities and classroom routines that allow children to practice memorization, self-control, and mental flexibility. A few ideas for practicing these skills are included below.


  • Games such as peek-a-boo or hiding an object under a towel can help exercise working memory.

  • Talking or singing with infants will help them to practice their attention skills while listening to what you say. You might even try pointing to specific objects, like an airplane flying by or a car driving by, to help children practice listening and focusing on the moving object.

  • Simple activities such as taking turns stacking blocks help children to practice turn-taking and impulse control.


  • Music and movement, such as the Hokey-Pokey or other songs that have simple movements, engage children’s working memory by listening to the cues of the songs and following along with movement.

  • Freeze dance helps toddlers to practice inhibitory control, working memory, and following instructions.

  • Reading a book and then talking about it afterward supports children’s ability to practice recalling the information in the story.

  • Sharing toys with peers will help children to practice impulse control.

Preschool & Pre-K

  • Waiting in line can help children practice self-control by waiting to take their turn.

  • Imaginary play allows children to test out ideas, follow rules, practice working memory, and regulate their behavior. From making up stories to pretending to be other people, imaginary play is a great way for children to practice executive function skills.

  • Putting together puzzles helps children use important executive function skills, from problem-solving and flexibility to emotional regulation and focused attention.

Additional Resources

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