On the first day of kindergarten, the child who is ready to learn is not necessarily the one who can count to 20 or name all the colors in the crayon box, rather it’s the child who can pay attention, take turns, get along with others and follow directions. Experts tell us that arriving at school with solid foundational skills like these is key to becoming an active, competent learner. A child who can focus, hold information and work with it, and make adjustments is equipped to begin to learn to read, write and do math.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, says all children are born with the ability to develop these executive function skills, but experiences in early childhood either foster their development, or not. Acquiring the building blocks of these skills is one of the most challenging tasks of the earliest years, and the ability to build on them is crucial to healthy development as children grow into adulthood, says Shonkoff.
The quality of a child’s relationships with adults plays a key role in building executive function in the brain. What does an environment that fosters growth of these skills look like? It’s made up of supportive adults who provide structure to help young children learn through practice, and over time offer opportunities for them to direct more and more of their own actions. By establishing routines, providing cues and dividing large tasks into small components, for example, adults can help young children begin to acquire executive function skills.
This short video by the Center on the Developing Child is an excellent overview of this important skill set—please take five minutes to watch it!