The first five years of life are a period of significant brain development, but some regions of the brain mature more slowly than others. The prefrontal cortex, which is the home base of executive function, is one such region, which explains why impulse and emotional control can be difficult for young children.
Still, aspects of executive function, including the ability to focus attention and working memory and to self-regulate actions, can be improved with explicit teaching, support, and practice, even among preschoolers. And there is good reason for parents and early childhood educators to work with young children to help them develop these abilities. Several major longitudinal studies show that preschoolers who exhibit self-regulatory behaviors go on to experience more success in school and are more likely to avoid risky behaviors in adolescence than their peers who have a hard time with self-control.
Green Light for Self-Regulation
Many children make big gains in their ability to take charge of their behavior and emotions between the ages of 3 and 7. Adults can help preschoolers make the most of their developing brains by serving as “cognitive coaches,” driving home the message that kids can become better listeners, learn to focus their attention, persist in learning tasks, and interact in more positive ways with peers if they think about and aim to control their actions.
Adopting these strategies can help young children develop their self-regulatory abilities:
Talk clearly, simply, and often about behaviors that matter. “Reading time is quiet time.” “Take turns with favorite toys.” “Now is the time to listen and follow directions.” “Being helpful can make you and others feel happy.” Keep rules and expectations simple, and remind children often when it’s time to follow them.
Establish routines. Young children may not be able to tell time, but they do become accustomed to the cadence of a regular schedule. When they know that story time will be followed by outdoor play, active children may be more able to sit quietly while their teacher reads.
Build in time for happy movement throughout the day. Acknowledge that young children have limited attention spans by alternating learning activities that require quiet, focused attention with opportunities for independent play and learning activities that include movement.
Call attention to attention. The ability to focus attention on learning tasks is a crucial executive function for future school success. Newborns are drawn to the stimulus that is most noticeable in their environment. In the course of normal development, infants begin focusing their attention on specific stimuli emphasized by parents and other caregivers. Toddlers and preschoolers at times have seemingly endless attention for activities they enjoy—building with blocks, creating art, or participating in favorite playground games. The challenge is presenting other learning activities in ways that elicit that same level of engagement—reading with emotion and enthusiasm, developing playful, hands-on lesson activities, and providing individual attention and support to get and keep children involved.
Make a game out of it. Computer games and concentration-style card games can help young children develop their working memory. More active games like Red Light Green Light and Freeze, in which children dance while music plays and freeze when it stops, require participants to exert self-control. During music time, the teacher can guide students to play rhythm instruments or kazoos faster or slower in time with a beat he or she establishes. A wide variety of games and activities give children opportunities to take charge of their bodies, voices, and minds—and they think they’re just having fun.
Encourage prosocial behaviors. Another form of gaining self-control is learning to take others’ feelings and welfare into account. By doing so, children interact in more positive ways with peers. Prosocial behavior is defined as voluntary interactions with the aim of helping others. An essential attribute in its own right, prosocial competence also correlates with academic and social-emotional skills. Parents and early childhood educators can encourage young children to adopt prosocial behaviors by setting clear expectations frequently for sharing and helping others, by modeling those actions themselves, and by giving each child individual, positive attention. Emphasize the message that when we help others, we feel happy—and so do they.
Of course, like all of us, young children have their ups and downs. Positive attention from caring adults when they’re feeling sad or angry can help young children begin to understand that they can take charge of their feelings. Acknowledge when children feel angry or left out, talk with them about their emotions without being dismissive, and explore how they might cope with those feelings in ways that make them feel better without hurting others.
Building their working memory can help young children make the leap from prereader to reader and enhance their problem-solving abilities by enabling them to hold key information in their minds as they calculate answers. Attending to learning tasks, remembering and observing class rules, and engaging with classmates in positive ways are other aspects of executive function that increase the likelihood that children will flourish as they begin school and throughout their years in the classroom.