An Overview of Executive Function for Teachers

An Overview of Executive Function for Teachers
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Shauna Tominey, Ph.D profile
Shauna Tominey, Ph.D April 10, 2015

Learn about executive functioning.

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*Duck… duck… goose!

Simon says touch your nose.
Simon says turn around.
Simon says jump up and down.
Now stop!
I didn’t say, ‘Simon says!’

Mother may I take two giant steps?
Yes, you may.
Mother may I take four baby steps?
No, you may not.

Red Rover, Red Rover send Johnny right over!*

The refrains from the traditional games that many of us played as children – and many of the games children play today – are not just the sounds of children playing. They are the sounds of children learning!

The skills children practice when playing these games are not only important on the playground, they can also help children get along with others and do well in school! At the heart of each of these games is a skill called: executive functioning.

Executive functioning has three components:

  • attentional flexibility – the ability to pay attention to instructions, ignore distractions, and switch focus from one task or person to another
  • working memory – the ability to keep information in your mind long enough to follow through with instructions
  • inhibitory control – the ability to stop and impulse and respond in a way that might feel less natural, but is more appropriate

When the components of executive function come together in behavior, it is called self-regulation. Simply put, self-regulation is the ability to stop, think, and then make a choice before acting. Children demonstrate self-regulation when they: stop and ask for what they want rather than having a tantrum, take turns with friends while playing a game, pay attention during a story, wait in line, follow directions, and in many other ways. Research shows that children with strong self-regulation skills are better prepared for school and have stronger social and academic outcomes than their peers who struggle with these skills.

There are many factors that affect self-regulation development. These factors include the parent or caregiver and child relationship, children’s temperament and personality, age and brain maturation, exposure to models of strong self-regulation, practice, and experience! The good news is that research is showing that executive functioning and self-regulation can be practiced and improved! Here are a few tips for helping the children in your life develop self-regulation along with a list of additional resources where you can learn more.

Model self-regulation. Children learn by watching and emulating the models in their lives, including parents, caregivers, siblings, and teachers. If the parents and caregivers in a child’s life model strong self-regulation skills, children are better supported in developing their skills to do the same.

  • Find chances to intentionally model self-regulation throughout your day. For example, if you pick up a dessert on your way home from work, rather than taking a bite in the car, say out loud, “I’m going to save this and wait to eat it after dinner because that’s when we will all have dessert!” By pointing out your own self-regulation abilities and explaining your choices, you share your “private speech” with children and help them develop their own.
  • Share out loud with your child the choices you make. Sharing can be about simple choices or more complex choices depending on the age of your child. For example: “When the light turns red, I stop the car because it is someone else’s turn to go. Now the light is green so we can go.” or “I was having a lot of trouble concentrating at work today because I kept thinking about all the things we need to do to get ready for our trip this weekend! I had to keep reminding myself that I would have time to pack later tonight. Do you ever feel that way at school? What do you do to stay focused?” Sharing stories and asking questions such as these help promote critical thinking and encourage children to think about what they do and why.
  • Turn off technology and be present with your child. It can be tempting to check email on your smartphone while also spending time with your child, but letting your child know, “I have a lot of emails from work so I keep looking at my phone, but I’m going to put it away right now. This is family time and I really want to spend time with you without getting distracted.” Not only does this model self-regulation to your child, it helps build a stronger bond.

Support your child’s self-regulation development through activities and games. Several intervention programs have emerged that show children can practice and develop self-regulation through activities, songs, and games. Children learn through play and making learning fun is a terrific way to promote self-regulation at home.

  • When standing in line at the grocery store, driving in the car, or while waiting for the bus, sing songs or play games with your child to pass the time. Playing games like, “I Spy,” searching for certain color cars that pass by, identifying letters on signs or magazines in the order of the alphabet, or pointing out license plates from each state teaches children that there are fun and appropriate ways to occupy their minds when they do have to wait. We often have an expectation that children should be patient while waiting, but we need to teach them what to do during these times!
  • Engage in activities with your child that require focus, such as completing puzzles or reading books. By engaging in these activities together, you can help bring the activity to life by showing interest in them yourself and making the activities fun. Working together with your child will help extend the amount of time children are able to spend on activities help develop their attention skills.
  • Play games that require turn taking, including board games or more active games like hide and seek. Games that have complex rules like Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light help children practice each of the components of executive function and self-regulation. You can even add new twists to these games. For example, ask children to touch their head if you say a word that starts with the letter “H,” touch their toes if you say a word that starts with the letter “T,” and wave their hands in the air if you say a word that starts with a different letter.

To learn more about how executive function and self-regulation develop and for specific game and activity ideas, check out these resources:


Stop, Think, Act: Integrating Self-Regulation in the Early Childhood Classroom(https://www.amazon.com/Stop-Think-Act-Integrating-Self-Regulation/dp/0415745233/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445953607&sr=8-1&keywords=stop%2C+think+act) by Megan M. McClelland and Shauna L. Tominey

Journal Articles:

McClelland, M. M. & Tominey, S. L. (2014). The development of self-regulation and executive
function in young children. Zero to Three Journal, 35(2), 2-8.

Tominey, S. L., Olsen, S. G., & McClelland, M. M. (2015). Supporting the Development of
Emotion Regulation in Young Children: The Important Role of the Parent-Child Attachment Relationship. International Journal of Birth and Parent Education.

Online resources:

Developing Young Children’s Self-Regulation Through Everyday Experiences(https://www.sd59.bc.ca/sites/default/files/2019-04/Self-Regulation_Florez_OnlineJuly2011.pdf) by Ida Rose Florez

Developing Self-Regulation in Kindergarten(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237121551_Developing_Self-ReguIation_in_Kindergarten_Can_We_Keep_All_the_Crickets_in_the_Basket) by Elena Bodrova and Deborah J. Leong

Self-regulation: A cornerstone of early childhood development(https://journal.naeyc.org/btj/200607/Gillespie709BTJ.pdf) by Linda Groves Gillespie and Nancy L. Seibel


Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves
cognitive control. Science (New York, NY), 318(5855), 1387.

McClelland, M. M., Cameron Ponitz, C., Messersmith, E., & Tominey, S. (2010). Self-
regulation: The integration of cognition and emotion. In R. Lerner (Series Ed.) & W. Overton (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of life-span development. (Vol. 1: Cognition, biology and methods, pp. 509–553). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

McClelland, M. M. & Tominey, S. L. (2015). Stop, Think, Act: Integrating Self-Regulation in
the Early Childhood Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge.

McClelland, M. M. & Tominey, S. L. (2014). The development of self-regulation and executive
function in young children. Zero to Three Journal, 35(2), 2-8.

Tominey, S. L. & McClelland, M. M. (2011). Red light, purple light: Findings from a
randomized trial using circle time games to improve behavioral self-regulation in preschool. Early Education and Development, 22(3), 489-519.

Winsler, A., Ducenne, L., & Koury, A. (2011). Singing one’s way to self-regulation: The role of
early music and movement curricula and private speech.Early Education and Development, 22(2), 274-304.

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