typical pre-school day might look like a lot of fun and games for the under five set: a teacher leads a small group in Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes; children tell stories and play dress up; a cooking demonstration yields a tasty snack.  

Joan White, director of Oak Park’s First United Preschool for 41 years, says Church Nursery School is a lot of fun, and there are a lot of games involved in the few hours children meet each week, but she points out that all of those common preschool activities are doing a lot to prepare young children for success throughout their lives by providing a key introduction to age-appropriate executive functioning skills. 

“People think about kindergarten readiness in terms of counting or alphabet sets, but all sorts of studies show that social-emotional skills, executive functioning skills and gross motor skills are best for children of this age,” says White.

White defines executive functioning as learning to manage self-regulation, which combines social, emotional and intellectual abilities. She points out that science shows these abilities are affected by the frontal lobe, which is not fully developed until people are in their 20s, but critical brain growth in the area occurs in early childhood.

John Borrero, executive director of the Collaboration for Early Childhood in Oak Park, says that preschool is the time to lay the foundation for learning executive functioning skills. “Toddlers are just about themselves and their immediate emotions. At three, language and nuanced emotions start to develop more. So much happens between three and four. As we understand brain development more and more, we realize this is the age that these executive skills develop.”

For children entering school for the first time at age two or three, White says one of the foundations for executive functioning is predictability. “It starts with consistent routines, schedules and expectations. This provides a sense of safety to a child. Adults in the classroom model problem solving and provide management opportunities for children to exercise their choices.”

There are many activities that support executive functioning in early childhood, according to White and she points to three key areas. Focused attention means being able to filter out distractions, resist impulsive actions and follow routines. A two-year-old might be able to focus attention for two minutes, but a five-year-old might be able to focus for five to 10.

Working memory is another important skill that requires a child to keep knowledge and use it for a later activity. This might manifest in dramatic play. For instance, a child who has recently had a check-up at the doctor might bring some of that understanding to playing doctor with classmates at school later in the week.

A third important executive functioning skill is mental flexibility: being able to keep a variety of things in your mind and being able to adjust to fit different circumstances. White points to common pre-school activities like freeze dance or Simon Says as examples of activities which foster mental flexibility alongside impulse control.

Many of the typical preschool activities may look like fun and games, but White says they actually help children learn important executive functioning skills.  Obstacle courses, yoga poses, finger play, games with rules, dramatic play, story time, and singing songs with directions all provide opportunities to learn executive functioning skills. White says, “It’s nothing new, but understanding why it’s important and why it’s valuable helps a teacher be intentional.”

Borrero recognizes the importance of good pre-school options and says all children are born with the capacity to learn executive functioning skills, but not all children have an environment that supports age-appropriate acquisition of executive functioning skills.  “The problem we have is when other things interfere: living in an environment with toxic stress or not having good health or other issues in the home. This is when we see problems start to develop.”

With all supports in place, a three-year-old would be learning how to follow directions, how to concentrate for periods of about five minutes or how to share toys. “Compare that to a kid who regularly doesn’t eat breakfast or who experiences conflict in the morning at home or has housing insecurity or who saw violence in the neighborhood. That child may not be able to focus. It will impact his relationships with his teachers and peers,” says Borrero.

He points out the importance of preschool for all children and adds that an inability to master early childhood executive functioning skills by kindergarten and first grade can lead to a lifetime label. “If you misbehave, and get in trouble, then you hear the message ‘You’re a problem.’ This becomes a cycle that is hard to escape.”

In Oak Park and River Forest, 75 percent of children entering kindergarten have had some preschool, and Borrero advocates for more children beginning at age two. The Collaboration for Early Childhood focuses on getting children involved in the many vibrant early childhood options available locally, and Borrero says their work does not end at the school door. “We need to look at the entire environment of the child — we need to come together to support development. This is why we’re a collaboration. We need to have everyone at the table: parents, pediatricians, schools, and occupational therapists. Early childhood education is not the only thing, but it is the foundation. It’s more than one person’s work. It’s a lot of people coming together.”


Signs of Executive Function Disorder

• Difficulty organizing and remembering materials for assignments and class.

• Messy desk, backpack, locker

• Not hearing or forgetting directions and assignments

• Late, missing or incomplete homework

• Problems remembering or noticing details

• Tendency to lose things

• Tendency to forget what they meant to do

• Sometimes thinking they’d done something when they hadn’t

• Difficulty planning papers/projects

• Difficulty judging the passage of time

• Difficulty getting started on a task

• Difficulty shifting attention from one task to another

• Tending to use the same solution again, even if it didn’t work well in the first place

SIDEBAR: Strategies for dealing with Executive Function Disorder

 SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).  

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