In the preschool years your child’s brain starts to develop the executive functions that allow him to control his thoughts, behavior, and emotions.
Executive functions of the brain, also called cognitive control, develop rapidly in this preschool period. These functions are the ability to control thought, behavior, and emotions with a goal in mind. They develop at this age with the ability to retain more information in the mind at one time, intentionally shift attention, and inhibit action. In the classroom, these skills show up as the ability to pay attention, follow instructions, wait your turn, and remember rules. They also predict success in early language and mathematical skills, but more importantly children who have them are easier to teach. Studies have also shown these abilities are associated with lower levels of aggression, better problem-solving skills, positive social skills, and the ability to delay gratification.
So, if executive function is such a good thing, how can we improve it? Engage your child in problem-solving challenges that are
- goal directed and motivational to the child,
- require sustained attention,
- require adaptation, and
- require repetition and practice.
Here are two sample activities to develop executive functions in your child: Start with three options, and as your child gets good at the process, increase to four and then five.
Sort by size: Ask your child if she wants more juice (or milk, etc.) or less. When she says, “More,” then show her three cups of different size and shapes, and ask her to arrange them in order from smallest to largest. Then put the juice in the smallest glass and pour it into the larger glasses to see if she was right. Re-arrange the glasses according to the results and then give her the juice. Repeat the “game” often with different kinds of containers for water, toys, or just different sized pictures and objects.
Which comes first: When your child wants to play a favorite game, ask, “What three things do we have to do to get ready for the game?” For example, to play with her dolls, she has to go to her room, find the dolls in her toy bin, and bring them back to the play area. The game doesn’t matter, and the steps don’t really matter. What matters is that she thinks of three correct steps and gets them in the right order. The reward is playing with the dolls. A more advanced version might to ask, “What if you can’t find your dolls in the toy bin?” You can follow the same procedure when she wants to go to the park, and you ask her, “How are we going to get to the park?” A more advanced version might be, “How else could we get to the park?” Possible answers might be walk, ride bikes, or drive the car, or to take different streets, etc.
For other activities you can use to improve your child physically, mentally, and emotionally so your child will be better ready for school, click here to see your options.