The Science of a Strong Start

By Ellen Galinsky, Philip David Zelazo, PhD, Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD, and Megan M. McClelland, PhD

In the next few weeks, millions of children across the United States will begin kindergarten. From public school to home school, and everything in between, parents, teachers and caregivers will do all they can to ensure that this transition into a formal school setting is as successful as possible. There are many factors that help determine this success, but one stands out as foundational to all the rest: executive function.

Imagine three kindergarten children working on a number activity. Mary is focusing and working through the activities together with Manuel, but the third child, Addy, is easily distracted, has a hard time remembering what to do, and keeps trying to interrupt Mary and Manuel. It is clear that Mary and Manuel will be more successful at learning from these activities than Addy, and the latest scientific research shows us that this can be directly tied to Addy’s “executive function” skills.

Executive function refers to the self-regulatory skills children need to manage attention, thought, emotion, and behavior in order to pursue goals. They are at the core of every child’s ability to do well in school, making it possible for a youngster to think flexibly and creatively, keep needed information in mind, and resist distractions.

As researchers who study children’s brain development, school readiness, and success in school, we are among many others who have demonstrated the importance of children’s executive function skills, particularly as they make the transition into more formal educational environments.

Our research indicates that children with better executive function skills are likely to learn more from the same amount of instruction, and to understand and get along better with other children and adults.

Among very low-income children at risk of school failure, it’s those with more developed executive function skills who are resilient and meet academic standards despite their disadvantaged circumstances.

Overall, children with stronger executive function skills are more likely to do well in school and even graduate from college compared to children who are weaker in these skills.
The scientific link between executive function and school success couldn’t be clearer, but the real opportunity lies in taking that science out of the lab and putting it into practice inside the homes and classrooms of our youngest learners.

While no child is born with executive function skills, all children have the potential to develop them. There is solid scientific evidence that executive function skills can be improved through practice, producing well-documented changes not only to children’s behavior but to their brains as well.

To aid parents and caregivers in supporting this healthy development, researchers who specialize in childhood brain development are working to bridge the gap between science and application. Books like “Einstein Never Used Flashcards” and initiatives like Vroom and Mind in the Making focus on helping parents and caregivers turn everyday moments like mealtime and bathtime into opportunities for strengthening executive function skills. By promoting supportive, reliable relationships between children and caring adults, communities can make a huge impact in preparing their early learners for success in school.

The importance of focusing on executive function is clear: these skills are the foundation for children to become effective, engaged, and self-directed learners. We now need to increase the scientific and practical efforts to develop evidence-based interventions targeting the executive function skills that underlie academic success. The sooner we agree to make executive function skills a priority, the better equipped we are to help the millions of kids going to school get the most out of their experience.

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