Early Childhood is a Critical Time for the Development of Executive Function Skills

A report from CoLab has highlighted the importance of developing executive function skills and self regulation in early childhood. Click here to view the report

Executive function skills are critical in allowing a child to successfully navigate everyday challenges in a range of environmental contexts, including coping with the demands of formal schooling. The Evidence Report outlines the main components of executive function and describes how these core skills develop in early childhood.

Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.


Executive function is made up of three areas:

  1. Working memory, which is the ability to hold and use information for short periods of time.

  2. Inhibitory control, which helps children manage their thoughts and actions, prioritise and direct focus and sustain attention.

  3. Cognitive flexibility, which allows children to adjust their goals, switch between tasks, change their priorities and learn from mistakes when they learn new information.

Through these processes, children can learn to regulate their own emotions and behaviour; this ability to self regulate is necessary for the many challenges they face in a range of everyday settings.


The below video gives a helpful summary of executive function skills and why they are fundamental to our wellbeing and a vital part of an education that teaches the whole child.


The Second Step Early Learning Program allows young learners to harness their energy and potential by teaching them to listen, pay attention, control their behaviour, and get along with others. When students begin school with the self-regulation and social-emotional skills taught in the research-based Second Step program, they're set up for success.


Positive Pieces Education is a Not-for-Profit organisation set up to provide evidence-based programs and educational resources to support children’s social-emotional wellbeing. We are the Australian and New Zealand publishers of Second Step.  


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