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He’s So Smart, But…
Why Executive Function Skills are as
Important as Math and Reading
Presented by Ann Janney-Schultz,
VA Head Start ECE T/TA System
Creating Connections to Shining Stars, July, 2013
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Session Objectives
Participants will:
• Understand what executive functions are.
• Understand why they are important.
• Connect executive function skills with early learning
frameworks and standards.
• Learn strategies for helping children develop and
improve their executive functions.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
What are Executive Functions?
• Brain functions used to
manage attention,
emotions, and pursuit
of goals.
• Emerge during
preschool years and
don’t fully mature until
early adulthood.
• More predictive of
school success than IQ.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
• Cognitive Control
abilities that depend on
the prefrontal cortex.
Executive Functions
• Cognitive control functions involved in goal-oriented
behaviors.
• Different from automatic, reactive behaviors
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Executive Functions
Core Executive Functions
• Inhibitory Control (self control)
• Working Memory
• Cognitive Flexibility
Higher Order Executive Functions:
• Problem solving
• Reasoning
• Planning
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Inhibitory Control/Self Control/Effortful Control
• The ability to resist a strong inclination to do one
thing, and instead do what is most appropriate or
needed.
– Resisting acting on impulse
– Staying focused on what is important-selective or focused
attention.
– Self control- the ability to think before you act, resist
temptation, avoid jumping to conclusions.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Inhibitory Control: Focus
Test Your Focus
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/06/07/technology/20100607distraction-filtering-demo.html?_r=0
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Effortful Control
• Basis for self regulation.
• Match demands of the situation-sometimes
inhibiting, sometimes motivating- Stop and Go
functions.
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Inhibitory Control: Discipline
Having the discipline to stay on task
• Persistence: Seeing a task through to completion
even when it is tedious or difficult.
• Begin able to stay focused despite distractions.
• Continuing to work although the reward may be a
long time coming.
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Evidence shows that discipline
accounts for over twice as much
variance in final grades as does IQ,
even in college.
(Duckworth and Seligman, 2005)
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Inhibitory Control
Being able to:
1. Stay Focused despite distraction
2. Stay on task and complete the task, even in the
face of temptation or frustration
3. Exercise self control by considering a response
before acting—controlling behavior, responses,
and language (not putting your foot in your
mouth)
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Working Memory
• Holding Information in mind while mentally working
with it or while working on something else.
– Follow a conversation while formulating what you want to
say in response.
– Remembering where something was hidden despite a
delay and distractions before you get back to it.
– Holding in mind what happened earlier and relating it to
what is happening now.
– Relating one idea to another.
– Relating what you read earlier to what you are learning
now.
– Understanding cause and effect.
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Working Memory
• Critical to ability to see
connections between
seemingly unconnected
things.
• Critical to Creativityability to take apart and
re-assemble elements
or thoughts in new
ways.
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Cognitive Flexibility: Creativity
The ability to easily and quickly switch perspectives of
the focus of attention, flexibly adjusting to changed
demands or priorities—being able to
Think Creatively!
Thinking about ways to solve problems that no one
else has considered before…
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Cognitive Flexibility
• Ability to change course
when what you are
doing isn’t working.
• Ability to adapt to
change easily.
• Ability to take
advantage and seize
opportunities when
they arise, even if it
means changing course.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Why Are Executive Functions Important?
Executive Function Skills important for:
• School readiness more than are IQ or entry-level
reading or math. (Blair, 2002, 2003, Blair and Razza, 2007,
Normandeau and Guay, 1998)
• School Success: Working Memory and inhibitory control each
independently predict both math and reading competence
throughout the school years. (Adele Diamond, 2012)
• Job Success: Poor EF Skills lead to poor productivity and
difficulty finding and keeping a job.
Executive Function skills are critical for cognitive, social
and psychological development.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
EF’s and Poverty
• Children in poverty are susceptible to cumulative
risk, an accumulation of risk factors such as more
negative life stress, poor access to health care, more
mental health and substance abuse problems in the
home, perhaps less than ideal residential situations.
• These factors have lasting impact into adulthood.
• They disrupt neurobiological systems, especially selfregulation systems.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
ECLKC/NCQTL/Front Porch
Series
Executive Functions and Poverty
• Children in lower-income families evidence lower
levels of effortful control.
• Parental behaviors that would support the
development of effortful control are observed less
often in lower-income families.
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EF’s and Mental Health
• Increase in addictions, ADHD, depression, conduct
disorder, and schizophrenia are associated with
impaired executive functions.
• Children with less self-control (more impulsive, less
persistent, poor attention regulation) have worse
health, earn less and commit more crimes as adults
30 years later (Terri Moffitt et all , 2011, National Academy of Sciences)
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Executive Functions and Early Childhood
• 46% of kindergarten teachers, in a survey by Robert
Pianta and others from UVA, reported that at least
half of the children in their classrooms have
problems following directions.
• Head Start teachers, in another study, reported that
more than a quarter of their students exhibited
serious self-control-related negative behaviors.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
EF’s and Early Learning Standards
Domain Elements closely associated with Executive
Functions:
• Head Start Child Development Early Learning
Framework (HSCDELF)
– Social Emotional Development: Self Regulation
– Approaches to Learning: Persistence and Attentiveness
• Virginia Foundation Blocks for Early Learning (VFBEL)
– Personal and Social Development Foundation (PSDF): Block
2: Self Control
– PSDF Block 3: Approaches to Learning
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
How to Support Executive Functions
Research has shown that diverse activities can
improve children’s executive functions, including:
• Computer games
• Aerobics, martial arts and yoga,
• Mindfulness
• Playing a musical instruments
• School curricula that support creative thinking and
hands-on learning.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Stroop Color Word Test
• Work in groups of 3
– One person takes the test
– One person marks right or wrong on the cards
– One person is the timer
• Read each word on the cards as fast as you can.
• Say the color of the letters rather than the word the
letters spell.
• When you finish, switch roles.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Effortful Control and Attention
• Focusing attention
• Shifting attention
• Inhibitory Control
• Examples:
– A child is engaged in one project, and it’s time to clean up
and start something else.
– A child has a task to do-such as set the table as the helper,
but cannot stay attentive to the task because every time
she sees a toy she likes, she is distracted.
– A child who is accidentally bumped by another child
automatically responds by hitting or pushing back.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Day Night Exercise
• http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPmMNbgz3Es
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School Readiness
• Effortful control represents learning readiness, not
just content readiness, so it predicts kindergarten
gains in multiple areas.
• Effortful control can predict academic competence
in addition to and over and above IQ and verbal
skills.
• It also predicts school readiness in areas such as
social-emotional competence, school engagement,
and positive teacher-child relationship.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
EF Gains in Children
• Children with the poorest EF’s gain the most from
strategies that support development of Executive
Functions.
• EF training helps level the playing field and reduce
the achievement gap between more and less
advantaged children.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Strategies that Support EF’s
• Engaging in social pretend play that includes
planning a specific scenario with roles and props.
The teacher continually brings the children back to
the scenario by asking questions about what they
want to do and what they will do next.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Effortful Control
Simon Says…
• Simon Says-example of inhibiting control under one
circumstance (Simon didn’t say) but responding to
the command under another (Simon Says)
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Strategies
• Buddy reading, with each child taking a specific rolereader or listener. Each child gets a card with a
picture of a mouth or a picture of an ear to remind
them of their role—scaffolding the children to
practice these skills and increasing ability to follow
directions.
• Scaffolding from the
teacher is critical.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Strategies
• Pride in accomplishments increases self confidence.
Help children recognize their authentic
accomplishments.
• Communicate the expectation that a child can be
successful if s/he practices or keeps working.
• Continue to increase the challenge each time the
child has had a success.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Engage Families
• Research indicates that about half of the effects of
poverty in early childhood relate to family and
parenting factors.
• If we can promote effective parenting and family
functioning in early childhood, we may be able to
prevent lifelong problems for children.
Lengua, ECLKC Front Porch Broadcast; Paul Tough,
How Children Succeed.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Engaging parents
• Evans and Schamberg at
Cornell University
examined the EF skill of
working memory-the
ability to keep a number
of facts in your head at
the same time.
• Remember Simon?
• Encourage parents to
play memory games
with their children.
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
http://www.freegames.ws/games/kidsgame
s/simon/simon.htm
Interactions that Support Higher Order EF’s
Measured by CLASS
Instructional Support Domain
Higher Order
Executive Function Skills
• Problem solving
• Reasoning
• Planning
Concept Development• Analysis and Reasoning
– Why and how questions
– Problem Solving
– Prediction/experimentation.
• Creating:
– Brainstorming
– Planning
– Producing
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Your Ideas?
• Your own strategies: Think Pair Share
Core Executive Functions
• Inhibitory Control (self control)
• Working Memory
• Cognitive Flexibility
Higher Order Executive Functions:
• Problem solving
• Reasoning
• Planning
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International
Sources
• CLASS Dimensions Guide: www.Teachstone.org
• Dumbro, Amy et al. Powerful Interactions: How to Connect with Children
to Extend their Learning www.naeyc.org
• Galinsky, Ellen (2010) Mind in the Making. HarperCollins. New York.
• Lengua, Liliana (2013) Foundations for Social, Emotional and Academic
Competence: Economic Disadvantage and the Development of Effortful
Control ECLKC Front Porch Broadcast calls. May 2013
https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/Broadcast%20Calls/000721fps-broadcast-call-effortful-control.pdf;YW5uamFubmV5c2NodWx0eg==
• Tough, Paul (2012) How Children Succeed .Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New
York. (pp. 17, 18)
Prepared for the Office of Head Start by ICF International

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