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What Is Executive Function? And What Will It Do For My Child?

May 23, 2022 | Emily Ford Sytsma

Children learn so much in the preschool years.  Some of what they learn is content.  They learn that insects have six legs and that blue and yellow make green.  They soak up new vocabulary and learn to count forwards and backwards.  But most importantly, they learn about how to learn and how to manage themselves at school (and in life outside of school).

Between ages 3 and 6, children rapidly develop skills known as EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS.  Executive function can be thought of as the control center of the brain.  These skills are the skills that help students organize, plan, and make decisions.  

Many experts group executive functioning skills into these buckets:

  • Working memory (which involves holding information in your mind while also using the information, like when you comprehend what you read or apply the rules of the game while you take your turn)


  • Flexible thinking (for example, switching attention from one thing to the other, following a different set of rules, or adjusting to transitions throughout the day)


  • Inhibitory control (or self-control: controlling your impulses by waiting for a turn to speak or stopping play when it is clean-up time)


For a more complete explanation, watch this five minute video (also available in Spanish).

Our Portrait of a Graduate describes what it looks like to successfully complete the MSS program.  It highlights that a MSS graduate is an EXPERT LEARNER.  Many of the outcomes describe a student ready to deal independently in a rigorous learning environment. We hope you received our magazine called Inspire at home and were able to read stories about a few of our successful “expert learner” graduates. 

An expert learner is able to pay attention, focus, set goals, make and carry out plans, follow a schedule, and break a big task into smaller parts.  They have control over their thinking in a way that allows them to go deep and make connections that build rich understanding.  They often have developed good executive functioning skills.

Students who do not develop strong executive function skills sometimes lose materials, forget their homework, or do not follow an assignment’s directions. They might have a hard time retaining facts, solving problems that take several steps, figuring out what’s important in things they are reading, and putting things in a reasonable order when they are writing.

In the preschool we work on foundational executive functioning skills each day.  We use signals to start and stop work.  We show children multi-step tasks and support their memory development as they are able to hold more and more information while they work.  We establish set routines and then sometimes change it all up a little.  We sing songs that require children to remember and retrieve words, tune, and movements at the same time. We ask them to tell us the plan for their work and then to reflect on whether they kept to that plan or changed their mind or approach.  

There are things you can do at home as well to help your children develop executive functioning skills as well:

Play games that have rules. When children are younger, they often want to make up their own rules for games but as they pass age three, make sure sometimes you ask them to follow the rules.  This builds both working memory and inhibitory control.

Also play games with new and different rules.  Say, “Today in Candy Land, if the card says move one square, you can move two. If it says move two squares, you can only move one.” Sort your stuffed animal collection or truck by color.  Then sort it again by size.  Changing the rules and changing the way you categorize one set of objects helps build flexible thinking. 

Play games that require a child to pay attention. At school sometimes we play “I’m thinking of an animal that _____ and _____ .” Keeping track of 2 qualities while guessing builds working memory. 

Begin to engage children in stories in a way that calls them to pay close attention.  Change the name of the character as you read or replace a word with its opposite.  If they don’t notice and correct you, point out what you are doing and try again.  In a familiar book, stop every few pages and ask them to tell you what comes next.  This will help them track with the story and practice focusing. 

Help your children stretch out how long they can wait.  This can involve learning strategies that make waiting easier.  Sing a favorite song together while you wait in line at the store or make a verbal list of kinds of animals while in traffic.  Students who can manage their behavior when they have to wait will have more success at working toward goals with less distraction and frustration.

No one is born with executive functioning skills.  Developing them is partly a natural process and partly supported by the environment and adults surrounding a child.  Adults can provide and environment that requires planning and organization.  Then adults can provide scaffolding that allows young children to get support with executive functioning skills until they are able to perform them on their own.  As your child develops, gradually offer more challenge and more independence.  And, as always, check in with your child’s teacher if you have any concerns or questions.

Emily Ford Sytsma

Early Childhood Director

Ms. Sytsma began her career as an educator working in inclusive classrooms in the state of Hawaii but found her roots began to grow here at Mustard Seed School when she came to teach in 1996. She joined the preschool team in 2007, after teaching for many years in the Middle School. She finds delight in the preschool’s approach to teaching and learning, inspired by the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. As Early Childhood Director, she seeks to support teachers in their work helping children learn about thinking and creative expression.

Ms. Sytsma’s the mother of a MSS alum and a current student. When not at school, Ms. Sytsma enjoys traveling with her husband and two children. She tends a very simple rooftop garden in Jersey City Heights and on long Saturday mornings, she may be seen taking long walks along the Hudson River and listening to audiobooks or podcasts while organizing her thoughts and getting her heart rate up.

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