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Fostering the Growth of Executive Functioning Skills in Children

The term executive functioning refers to an important set of skills that allow people to successfully navigate life. These skills include the ability to plan, self-evaluate, self-control, retain information, manage time, and organize thoughts and information. According to a useful infographic published by Harvard, these abilities are not innate to anyone, but may be learned by nearly everyone. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old tend to develop these skills rather rapidly, and this development is significantly bolstered by early childhood education and care (ECEC). 

An exploratory report was published in May of this year, examining the effect of ECEC on children’s executive functioning skills at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to these important skills, the study also examined the effect of this care on language, and the difference socioeconomic status may make on the development of vocabulary and executive functioning. The study looked at children between 8 months and 36 months old from monolingual families, and approximately half the group was male and half female. 

There were limitations to the study, such as the information gathered being self-reported by parents/caregivers of the children studied rather than objective observations being made by the researchers or by those providing the education. Despite these limitations, however, the data is still useful in showing that formal ECEC has a positive impact on the development of executive functioning skills and vocabulary. Socioeconomic status did not make a difference when it came to the former; children from all backgrounds saw similar improvement in executive functioning. It did, however, play a role in the effect of ECEC on vocabulary, as children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were found to have a greater improvement in this area.

Executive functioning skills are not only useful in allowing children to become adults capable of making future plans, recalling important information, and remaining focused on a task, but have also been found to have other benefits as well. For instance, Harvard reports that “Neuroscientists are also beginning to relate specific aspects of executive functioning, notably attentional skills, to specific steps involved in learning to read and to work with numbers.” By bolstering the growth of these skills early in childhood, there may be an increase in school readiness and an improvement in classroom performance. 

Much of what we do as children’s librarians contributes to the development of executive functioning skills in children. Lap games, playing peekaboo with objects or body parts, imitation games that have the child repeat a hand motion or song, storytelling, and much more all contribute to the growth of these skills. In addition to their infographic, Harvard has also published a guide on helping children from infancy through adolescence grow these skills. Though many of us already make use of these activities in our programs, this guide may be useful in explaining the why behind what we do. 

Today’s blog post was written by Kat Baumgartner, Acting Branch Head at the Great Neck Library in Great Neck, NY, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. She can be reached at kathryn.a.baumgartner@gmail.com. 

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of III. Programming Skills and V. Advocacy and Outreach.

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