Executive Function in the Early Years

Executive Function in the Early Years(original image source)

Executive function is a pretty rad set of skills that help us all to control our impulses, make use of working memory, stay focussed and pay attention, make a plan, stick to a plan, make decisions, prioritise and more. You can see how any deficit in this skill set is going to create big issues in the young people in our classrooms, right? That’s why we need some strategies to help support this precious brain development in students.

The great news is that executive functioning skills can be developed at any age. It’s never too late! Yay for our fantastic, plastic brains! p.s. if you’re looking for an awesome book to read with kids about their brains, check this out.

I don’t know about you, but I have students who:

  • can’t find their hat/book/bag/shoe (!)
  • lose their train of thought mid sentence
  • have difficulty staying focussed on tasks
  • have trouble making a decision (grapes or apple? so hard!)
  • physically hurt others when frustrated
  • scream, shout and yell during conflict
  • … and so much more.

So when the Mitcham Hills partnership schools got together to learn more about executive function, I was ready to learn. Boy was I ready! Below are my take aways from the session which focussed on the Early Years, as well as from further reading I’ve done since the session. You’ll find links at the bottom of this article.

Executive Function Strategies in the Early Years

Make Your Intent Clear

Y’all probably know this already, but the intent of learning experiences needs to be clear. What is the purpose of this learning? This links directly with work by Dr Martin Westwell on creative thinking and creative thinking for intellectual stretch.

Plan for Play and Learning

Early years teachers know all about the importance of play to support children’s learning. However I’ll admit that many days we’re so focussed on {insert All The Teacher Jobs here} that planning for play gets neglected. The growth mindset embracing teacher in me can stand up and say, yes, in my classroom this needs work. During our session with Sharyn Lockett of Morphett Vale Kindergarten she shared a fabulous resource for assessing and scaffolding make believe play that my team and I will be making good use of. I’d love to know how you plan for play too. Leave a comment :)

Sing Songs and Play Games

There are some old favourite games and songs that are fab for helping children develop executive functioning skills. A few examples are:

  • Sing ‘Open Shut Them‘ with actions, then sing it again with opposite actions, working on shifting attention and working memory.
  • Play musical statues, practicing shifting attention and inhibiting impulses. Or try ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf‘ and ‘Duck duck goose‘.
  • Sing songs that add on more and more as you sing, for example ‘Johnny works with one hammer‘, practicing working memory.
  • Sing songs that require children to skip parts of the song as they sing, for example, ‘BINGO‘, practicing working memory and impulse control.

Allow Time for Learning

Slow it down and allow children to come back and revisit the same experience over and over again. Sarah Quihampton from Eden Hills Kindergarten shared some amazing learning about counting using silk worms that took place over five hours or more. How often do we allow children this kind of time for learning? Kathleen White from Old Noarlunga Primary school shared how she allows children as long as they need to answer questions. When she prompts children during inquiry circles or play sessions she gives them the opportunity to go away and think. She has been amazed that children will return to her much later in the day to share their thinking.

Create a Learning Community

Of course the reason children are coming back to share their thinking is because they feel respected and listened to. In Kathleen’s Reception/Year 1 classroom they practice a community of inquiry, where students learn to listen to others and respond respectfully, not just waiting their turn to talk but sharing points they agree or disagree on and asking the speaker questions about their ideas.

Executive function in the early years

What has this got to do with executive function? Through these interactions students are learning to manage their impulses and wait their turn to speak, to use working memory to remember what the speaker has said and plan a suitable response, use planning skills to put their thinking into order, make decisions about what they want to say, and maintain attention on the discussion.

Journal Student Learning

Each teacher at our session shared how they keep records of student thinking for the learning community to refer back to, supporting their executive functioning skills. Some used large scrapbooks and visual journals, others used the wall space in their classrooms.

Executive Function in the Early Years
My notes from Kathleen’s session on community of inquiry

Make Thinking Visible and Accessible

Sharyn Lockett shared some inspiring video of her kindergarten students speaking articulately about their thinking and feelings. Educators and students practice talking about their thinking being in control or their feelings – Sharyn’s students are taught an analogy of an elephant and an elephant rider. The language is used again and again during play and learning until students begin to use it themselves.

The children in my class have just completed Road Safety training on bikes and most have bikes that they ride at home. I’m planning a bike riding analogy to help them with their thinking about thinking. I’ll let you know how that goes!

Tell me about your students

Do you teach your students executive functioning skills? I’d love to know about it. Do you have some executive functioning deficits yourself? *cough* My husband would likely say that I do … if I lose my keys/phone/earrings one. more. time…

Executive Function resources:

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