Make ‘executive function’ a priority in early education policy

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Diana M. Rauner

Courtesy Ounce of Prevention Fund

Diana M. Rauner

At preschool, Kevin finishes his drawing of a train and his teacher asks him to write his name under the drawing. Kevin draws a vertical line, then stops, forgetting what to do next. Seeing Kevin struggling, his teacher asks, “Do you need help, Kevin?” “Yes, I need help,” he replies. His teacher places an index card with Kevin’s name spelled on it in front of him. When Kevin sees it, it triggers his memory on how to write his name and he finishes the task with no further help from his teacher. 

With this simple activity, the teacher has helped Kevin learn how to follow directions, manage his frustration and be persistent when faced with a challenge. These are examples of executive function skills, the abilities that serve as the foundation all children need to succeed in school and in life.

Once children enter kindergarten, they are expected to know how to focus on a task, control their impulses and ask for help when they need it. Only when children have mastered these skills can they take on the academic tasks of learning to read, write and do simple math problems. A child who can’t focus on the task at hand can disrupt a whole kindergarten classroom, frustrating teachers and distracting the other children from learning.

The sad reality is that not all children have the nurturing early experiences—at home or in high-quality early learning settings—that they need to develop healthy executive function skills. Research shows that helping parents and teachers foster these abilities in young children would improve academic performance, raise high school graduation and college completion rates, and create a productive workforce contributing more to the economy.

Executive function skills begin to develop when a child is as young as 6 months old. While these competencies continue to develop throughout adolescence, the most important skill development happens before age 5.

We know children don’t inherently develop these non-cognitive skills as they grow up. These abilities must be nurtured in safe and predictable environments by parents, teachers and other caregivers. Studies show that children who grow up in stressful situations, such as chaotic households or crime-ridden neighborhoods, struggle to develop healthy executive function skills.

We also know that executive function skills in the early years are related to later academic performance in elementary school. An evaluation of the Chicago School Readiness Project showed that children’s executive function in the spring of preschool predicted achievement in math and reading three years later.  Additionally, executive function skills are more predictive of school readiness than a child’s IQ.

Furthermore, the abilities to stay on task, plan, organize and delay gratification are the same skills necessary to hold a job, develop healthy relationships and deal with stressful situations later in adulthood. In fact, one study found that children who lack self control at ages 3 to 11 tend to be less healthy, earn less and commit more crimes 30 years later than those with better self control as children.

Policy, funding still lags behind research

Despite all the research linking executive function and school performance, education policy still hasn’t caught up with the science of early childhood development.

Few policymakers, in Illinois or in Washington, D.C., factor in the link between developing a child’s executive function skills before kindergarten and that child’s later success in school and the workforce as they develop public education policy. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman states that we need to prioritize public spending on early learning programs because they help children develop these critical skills and are more effective at building human capital than remedial education and job training for adults. Yet high-quality early learning programs that help children develop solid executive function skills serve only a fraction of eligible children and are under near-constant threats of budget cuts.

So what can we do? First, recognize that the best time to develop a child’s executive function skills is during the first 5 years of life. We need more trained teachers at high-quality early learning programs for disadvantaged children, who are more likely to need support to develop executive function skills.

We need to focus on a holistic approach to child development by considering social and emotional development as well as language, literacy, math and other academic skills. We should invest in resources that help parents and teachers support children in developing optimal executive function skills. Teachers need training in specific strategies that enhance the executive function skills children can be expected to attain at different developmental stages. We also need more assessments to track our progress on helping children develop these important foundational abilities.

We are making some progress on the policy front. Self-regulation is included as a core component of the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines, to be published later this year. The guidelines will be embedded in all of Illinois’ early learning programs and will educate teachers and caregivers about what children are expected to know at certain developmental stages. Illinois will be the first state to include executive function skills as a core component in its early learning guidelines.

But much more work remains to be done. We must keep asking Illinois lawmakers to prioritize early learning funding even in the midst of the state’s ongoing budget troubles. Programs such as Preschool for All and evidence-based home visiting help children develop the social and self-regulatory skills that they need to succeed in school and that Illinois needs to have a strong workforce in the future.

Diana Mendley Rauner is president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.