Executive Functioning in Preschool – How to Help

Do you work with preschoolers? If you do, you know how important executive functions skills are for success in the classroom. At this young age, children are working very hard to develop skills such as inhibition, working memory skills, and more. Recent research took a closer look at how you can help develop executive functioning in preschool.

What Was the Study?

The researchers completed a randomized controlled study that explored the benefits of executive function training for preschool children with ADHD for a duration of 8 weeks.

The participants included 96 children with an ADHD diagnosis at age 4 to 5 years old who were randomized into the intervention group and waitlist group.

Pre assessments were completed to determine the level of ADHD symptoms and the executive function (EF). Both neuropsychological tests from NEPSY Second Edition (NEPSY-II) and Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function Preschool version (BRIEF-P) were used.

What Are Executive Function Skills?

Executive function skills include planning, organization, working memory, initiation, task monitoring, self-monitoring, inhibition, emotional control, and shifting/flexibility. We are constantly working on and developing these skills starting at birth.

Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time. An example in preschoolers, it waiting to take their turn.

Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another. To think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation. For preschoolers, this can mean moving from recess time back into the classroom for learning time.

Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings. For example, when a preschooler does not get what they want are they able to modulate their emotions.

Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. Can a preschooler start playing by themsleves?

Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. These skills are necessary for preschoolers to follow directions as an example.

Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.

Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.

Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. Can a preschooler learn from their mistakes and improve?

What Did Each Executive Function Training Session Include?

The training sessions consisted of the following four parts:

  1. Tasks and Games to Practice Executive Function Skills – this included movement games and focused on skills such as inhibition, following directions, working memory, spatial perception, theory of mind, and visual fine motor skills.
  2. Paper and Pencil Tasks – these were complete to practice visual motor skills and prewriting skills.
  3. Relaxation – strategies of deep breathing and muscle relaxation were taught to the preschoolers.
  4. Parent Education – focused on behavior management

What Did the Results Show about Executive Functioning in Preschool?

Following the 8-week training session, data analysis revealed that:

  • executive function training is suitable for preschool children.
  • visual-motor precision improved significantly.
  • oppositional defieant symptoms improved significantly.
  • ADHD diagnostic state also improved significantly.
  • the symptoms of ADHD and other executive function evaluations were found to be insignificant.

The researchers recommend further studies to include more frequent practice of activities to improve the effectiveness.

Reference: Shuai, L., Wang, Y., Li, W., Wilson, A., Wang, S., Chen, R., & Zhang, J. (2020). Executive Function Training for Preschool Children With ADHD: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Attention Disorders, 1087054720956723.