5 Ways to Develop Executive Function for Early Learners

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What are executive functions?

Executive functions are a set of cognitive skills that allow us to control our emotions and thoughts in the midst of an often-hectic world. A recent report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard identifies three primary components of executive function: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

Working memory is the ability to maintain and manipulate information for short periods of time, which is essential for executing planned sequences, whether that plan consists of dialing a phone number, carrying on a conversation, adding two numbers, or tying a shoe.

Inhibitory control is comprised of both top-down focus, or selective attention, and suppression of distractors or temptations. Selective attention is the ability to ‘tune in’ to a subset of the vast amount of sensory information that we experience in a constant stream. This is considered a top-down process because it’s directed by choice, while bottom-up distractors (external) or impulses (internal) are spontaneous. Adults depend on inhibitory control throughout daily life, for example, when driving a car with children in the backseat; children acquire it by learning social rules such as waiting to be called upon if they know an answer, or ignoring a sibling’s teasing.

Cognitive flexibility is called into play when a change in top-down strategy is warranted. This may be a procedural shift, such as realizing a math problem calls for multiplication rather than addition, or a situational strategy shift, such as knowing and following different behavioral guidelines inside school versus on the playground. Successful acquisition of this skill allows adults to adapt to different social conventions in different environments, and to adjust a work or task list based on an updated deadline.

Describing these cognitive skills independently obscures the reality that in most daily tasks, all are engaged simultaneously! However, research has shown that each of these skills is independent, and can be improved with training. We’ll share this research in future posts to explain why Kiko’s Thinking Time is such an important tool for developing children’s minds.

Harvard Working Papers

What is reasoning?

Over the years, researchers have investigated many different types of reasoning (e.g., fluid reasoning, analogical reasoning, relational reasoning, etc.), but a good general definition is the ability to integrate sets of information in order to solve novel problems. As you can guess, reasoning skills can be applied to almost any new challenge! Whenever we learn a new skill, we relate it to something we already know; when we come up against a new problem, we look for clues either from past knowledge or from the problem context to help us figure it out. Because schoolchildren are learning almost all of the time – whether it’s in school or out – they are constantly using their reasoning abilities.

Here is the link to the slides

Here is a short brochure for Kiko’s Thinking Lab.


Cognitive Skills for Early Learning

Kiko’s Thinking Time is a tablet-based app/browser app that trains cognitive skills necessary for school readiness including executive functions, with a focus on memory, attention and reasoning.

If you need help accessing the demos please contact us.