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Four Essential EF Learning Contexts

Executive function (EF) skills such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control are crucial for children’s academic success and behavioral development. The most durable EF skills are those developed in multiple contexts throughout the day. In this article we review four ways you can incorporate EF skill-building alongside other learning in a child’s daily life. 

The Importance of Executive Function Skills

Research has shown that executive function skills are strong predictors of academic achievement and social-emotional development. According to a study by Diamond (2013), EF skills are essential for problem-solving, self-regulation, and goal-directed behavior, all of which are critical for success in school and life.

Terminology

In this article, the term “EF language” refers to the specific vocabulary and phrases that educators and caregivers use to talk about and reinforce executive function skills. While it is not a widely established term in academic literature, it is derived from the idea of using consistent and explicit language to help children understand and practice EF skills.

Varied Learning Contexts

  1. Classroom Activities:
    In the classroom, teachers can incorporate EF language (language that supports EF development) into daily activities. For instance, prompting students to “think about your answer before you tell me” encourages them to practice inhibitory control and working memory. A study by Blair and Raver (2015) found that classroom interventions targeting EF skills can significantly improve children’s academic performance and behavior.
  2. Play-Based Learning:
    Play is a natural context for developing EF skills. According to Bodrova and Leong (2007), play provides opportunities for children to plan, negotiate roles, and follow rules, all of which require the use of EF skills. By using EF language during play, educators can reinforce these skills. For example, asking children to “plan your next move” in a game can help them practice cognitive flexibility.
  3. Home Environment: Collaboration between educators and parents is vital for promoting EF skills at home. Parents can help reinforce their childrens’ EF development by using the same EF language as educators, demonstrated in the previous points. Research by Bernier et al. (2010) suggests that supportive home environments that include EF practices can enhance children’s EF development .
  4. Community Engagement: Extending EF skill development to community settings can further reinforce their importance. Programs like community sports, arts, and extracurricular activities can integrate EF practices. Educators and program leaders can work together to ensure consistent use of EF language (eg. “remember to follow the steps” or “think before you act.”)

Practical Strategies for Educators

  • Model EF Language: Demonstrate how to use EF language in various contexts. Teachers can model self-talk strategies by saying things like “I need to focus on this task” or “Let’s think about our options.”
  • Create EF-Rich Environments: Design classrooms and play areas that require children to use EF skills. This can include organizing materials that require planning and categorization or setting up games that require rule-following and turn-taking.
  • Collaborate with Families: Provide parents with resources and training on how to support EF development at home. This can include tips on creating routines and engaging in activities that promote EF skills.

Conclusion

By encouraging EF development across multiple learning contexts, educators can help children gain strong EF skills. Integrating language that promotes EF skill development into classroom activities, play-based learning, home environments, and community settings ensures that children can apply their developing skills in all areas of their lives. As research shows, these efforts can lead to significant improvements in children’s academic and social-emotional outcomes, as well as better overall EF skill levels. Remember to incorporate EF into your child’s daily life to help them develop strong EF skills.

References

  1. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135-168.
  2. Blair, C., & Raver, C. C. (2015). School readiness and self-regulation: A developmental psychobiological approach. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 711-731.
  3. Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2007). Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education. Pearson.
  4. Bernier, A., Carlson, S. M., & Whipple, N. (2010). From external regulation to self-regulation: Early parenting precursors of young children’s executive functioning. Child Development, 81(1), 326-339.
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