Executive Functions in Early Childhood

Executive functioning and self-regulation skills play a crucial role for both social–emotional and academic behavioral purposes (Lin et al., 2019). In the early childhood classroom successful executive function skills demonstrate a positive impact on early literacy and math skills. However, executive skills do not automatically develop and must be taught. When learning new skills, children not only need to practice those skills, they also must practice executive functioning to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for social and academic growth. This highlights the importance of executive functions in early childhood to promote success in later academic, emotional, behavioral, and social skills and competencies.

What Are Executive Functions?

  • Executive functions (EFs) are a set of cognitive skills used to exercise control on thoughts and behaviors associated with the prefrontal cortex (Diamond, 2013). More specifically, EFs include working memory, inhibition, sustained attention, and cognitive flexibility (Doebel, 2020; Fiske & Holmboe, 2019). It is also conceptualized as cognitive functions responsible for goal-directed thought and action.
  • Working memory is temporary storage characterized by manipulation of information (Baddeley, 1992).
  • Inhibition is purposefully preventing a response in pursuit of a goal (Fiske & Holmboe, 2019).
  • Sustained attention is the ability to maintain selective and focused attention for an extended period (Fiske & Holmboe, 2019).
  • Cognitive flexibility, also known as “set shifting” and “task switching,” is the ability to switch thinking to adapt to task/stimuli demands (Diamond, 2013).
  • EFs are also related to creativity, planning, problem solving, cooperative social behavior, and self-regulation (Sarma & Thomas, 2020).

EF Developmental Periods

Preschool years (ages 2–6) are one of the most sensitive periods of EF development (Garon et al., 2008).

  • Hierarchical, nonlinear development across two stages (Garon et al., 2008):
  • Birth to 3 years: Prerequisites to EF emerge, including voluntary control of attention and ability to identify and problem-solve low levels of conflict.
  • Age 3 years and beyond: Coordination of prerequisite skills into complex EF components, including inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.
  • Contemporary frameworks conceptualize EF development as a continuous, evolving process characterized by self-regulation and strategic interpersonal behaviors benefiting the individual, postulating that EFs are cognitive tools used by humans to exercise power onto their environment and others (Barkley, 2012).

Sociocultural Perspectives on EFs

With children, interventions targeting EFs usually focus on promoting academic achievement. However, such interventions and skills may fail to transfer in other areas, such as social functioning and engaging in a cooperative environment. There is a growing need to address EFs in context of social and emotional development and adaptive behavior (Sarma & Mariam Thomas, 2020).

EFs and School Readiness

  • EFs, such as behavior regulation, effortful control, and cognitive flexibility, are considered predictors of early academic competence in preschool children, including critical thinking, early literacy, numeracy, and comprehension Behavioral regulation also predicted subdimensions of early academic skills, such as social–emotional competence, fine motor skills, and communication skills (Sezgin & Ulus, 2020; Shaul & Schwartz, 2014).
  • EFs influence preacademic skills, such as preliteracy and mathematical thinking, more than IQ for readiness to transition to first grade (Shaul & Schwartz, 2014).
  • Early intervention and preschool programming focused on EFs are associated with both short- and long-term positive outcomes in terms of academic and self-regulatory skills (McCoy et al., 2019).


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Please cite this document as:

Brozovich, M., Kurland, E., & McGoey, K. (2021). Executive Functions in Early Childhood [Research summary]. National Association of School Psychologists.

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