Think about a typical weekday morning before your students arrive to your classroom. You might put the chairs out, answer emails, meet with a parent, and chat with colleagues. These tasks become so routine that we may even feel programmed--almost like that feeling you get when you arrive to a destination and think, “How did I get here?” When you take a moment to reflect on the skills needed to accomplish the extensive list of everyday tasks, you realize that you aren’t “programmed” at all. Your executive function skills are just hard at work. I think of executive functions as the brain manager. They manage our attention, impulses, and emotions. They allow us to multi-task, prioritize, and gather information in order to effectively plan, evaluate, and change our actions. Most importantly, these functions begin to surface during the preschool years and aren’t advanced until adulthood. What this tells me is our children need our support now more than ever!
In the book, Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky highlights seven essential life skills that help children develop these executive functions. The first skill is focus and self-control. During a session I presented on this skill, we asked participants to think of words that described the world we live in. We found that the words shared described feelings of anxiety, rush, and complication. If these are the types of words adults use to describe the world today, it will only be more complex for the children we serve! To navigate this world, our children need focus to pay attention, retain information, control impulses, and use cognitive flexibility in order to reach their goals even when surrounded by distractions.
Children exercise this focus when they:
Sing along to a familiar song
Play games that require attention to detail (like I-spy and Simon Says), opposites, and stop and go directions
Make plans when deciding which center to visit
Listen to a read-aloud
Devote their attention to a specific project
Each of Galinsky’s seven skills is essential in promoting executive function in our students, but also in us as adults! These skills can be taught and improved with support and practice. My next post will continue this series with a focus on skills two and three; perspective taking and communicating. In the meantime, here is a link to a list of picture books and read aloud tips to support development of focus and self-control.