Committee for Children Blog

Executive Function: Important Skills for Childhood Development

social emotional learning, SEL, executive function, early learning, kindergarten

We’re not born with the executive-function skills we need to get things done, but the good news is these skills can be taught. Executive-function skills help us stay on task, make plans, set goals, and carry them out successfully—even when complex things are happening around us. They’re a set of three cognitive processes that include flexible attention, working memory, and inhibitory control. Although they are developed throughout childhood and adult life, executive-function skills have a critical window for growth between the ages of three and six.

Educators’ Role in Teaching Executive Function

By teaching these skills, educators can provide a crucial foundation for school readiness, academic achievement, and lifelong success. Children impacted by adverse experiences, including poverty, are at risk for compromised development of executive-function skills and can benefit from lessons that help develop them.

Executive functions form a foundation for self-regulation and help children build social-emotional skills. These skills make up three of the four self-regulation skills, which help people manage their thoughts, behavior, and emotions and help prepare preschoolers for a better transition to school.

Second Step helps teachers develop these skills in children as early as preschool and helps students enter kindergarten with executive-function, self-regulation, and social-emotional skills. With the research-based Second Step program, students are set up for success.

Built-In Instruction

Explore these elements of Second Step, which are designed to strengthen executive-function skills:

  • Brain Builders: These are fun, active games that build executive-function skills. Brain Builders can be played with large or small groups of early learners and are particularly useful for transitions between activities.
  • Listening Rules: Eyes watching, ears listening, voice quiet, body still. These rules support children’s ability to manage their behavior and attention while listening.
  • Attent-o-scope: This tool helps children focus their attention. Teachers also use it as an attention signal.
  • Self-talk: This is Second Step’s language for private speech. Using self-talk supports children’s ability to focus attention, remember things, and manage their behavior. Most of the time young children do this out loud, whereas adults do it internally.

It’s clear that these skills are valuable in the classroom and throughout life. Explore these great resources to continue learning about executive functions and how Second Step can help increase valuable executive-function skills.

Watch and Learn More

To learn more about executive-function skills, check out these studies and a couple of informative videos:

2018 Study—Pathways to Kindergarten Readiness: Role of Second Step Early Learning Curriculum

Second Step Social-Emotional Learning for Early Learning has been shown to improve young students’ executive-function skills—like attention, memory, and self-control—which are not only predictive of Kindergarten readiness but are essential for success in and outside the classroom. Read Study

2017 Study—Efficacy Trial of the Second Step Early Learning (SSEL) Curriculum: Preliminary Outcomes

A recent study shows that children who received the Second Step Early Learning Program had significantly better end-of-preschool executive-function skills than students who did not receive the program. Read Study

Executive Functions: Why They Are Skills for a Lifetime

The executive-function skills we need to succeed in this fast and complicated world can be taught, and they form a foundation for self-regulation and help build social-emotional skills.

Self-Regulation Skills: Why They Are Fundamental

We depend on executive functions and emotion management every day, and these skills can be taught.

Author Bridgid Normand, MEd, is Director of Education & Learning at Committee for Children.