Executive functions are a set of cognitive abilities that allow us to plan, focus, remember and manage multiple pieces of information at once. These skills help the brain filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. Furthermore, these skills are especially important because they have been shown to predict later cognitive abilities and academic success (Welsh, et al., 2010).
Children are not born with executive functions. However, they are born with the ability to develop them. When children have opportunities to develop executive functions, the benefits are far-reaching. So how do we help children develop these important cognitive processes? SCIENCE! Engaging children in science experiences provide an excellent opportunity for children to develop and employ executive functions (e.g., working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition). Studies show relationships between executive functions and science achievement (Nayfeld, 2013), suggesting that the two domains are highly connected and, likely, mutually beneficial (Snow, 2007).
Think for a moment of a toddler rolling objects through a tube. He then begins to place other objects in the tube and notices that they do not roll through like the ball, they slide. The plastic T-Rex even gets stuck! He uses the information that he has learned from previous experiences (working memory) and looks around the classroom for a different object (cognitive flexibility). He finds an orange in the dramatic play area. He places it at the end of the tube and releases it. Zoom! Down the tube it rolls. The toddler smiles. This child’s ability to persevere and stay on task, looking for objects that roll in a busy classroom (inhibition) is what allowed him to find success.
Research utilizing neuroimaging has shown that the regions of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that relate to executive functions also relate to problem-solving and deductive reasoning (Blair & Razza, 2007), both of which are critical skills when engaging as a scientist! The science opportunities provided in the classroom during the early years will directly affect their success later on. For example, it has been found that attention skills (a component of executive function skills) in kindergarten related to science achievement in 5th grade (Grissmer et al., 2010). Given the fact that young children are born curious and eager to learn about the world around them, it is clear that we should be capitalizing on this excitement around science throughout the early years, not only to support their wonderment now but also to prepare them for the future through the development and of these important domain-general skills like executive functions.
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Nayfeld, I., Fuccillo, J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2013). Executive functions in early learning: Ex- tending the relationship between executive functions and school readiness to science. Learning and Individual Differences, 26,81–88.
Snow, K. L. (2007). Integrative views of the domains of child function: Unifying school readiness. In R. C. Pianta, M. J. Cox, & K. L. Snow (Eds.), School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.
Blair, C. B., & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 78(2), 647–663.
Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1008–1017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0020104