Executive Function: The Foundation for School Readiness

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Peter Barnes

Almost 400,000 children in Australia and New Zealand will begin their first year of school in late January or early February this year. They will be going into classes known in various Australian states as Kindergarten, Prep, Pre-Primary or Transition, and into Year 1 in New Zealand.

Every one of these children will transition into their first year of a formal school setting in various stages of school readiness.

What will determine a successful transition? 

Children need multiple skills to make a successful start at school including social ability, emotional control, memory, attention and the ability to follow directions.

These skills are known collectively as executive function – the thinking processes that enable a child to plan, remember instructions, focus their attention, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

Here is a summary of the components of executive function:

Impulse control - helps your child think before they act

Emotional control - helps keep feelings in check

Flexible Thinking - allows your child to adjust to unexpected events

Working memory - remembering information for a short time in order to use it

Planning & prioritising - setting a goal and making a plan to achieve it

Organisation - keeping track of things like belongings and tasks to be done

Task initiation - helps your child get started

Growth of executive function from ages 3 to 5 years

Parents of young children will often observe great changes in their child’s behaviour in the years 3, 4 and 5 when executive function develops dramatically. They will notice their child becoming less impulsive, more able to play co-operatively with others and play independently. These are signs that the child’s executive function is developing well.

We know not all children develop their executive function skills sufficiently at this time, and children with problems don't necessarily out grow them.

Children who start school with difficulties in various executive function skills may struggle to achieve the necessary level of academic ability for success in primary and secondary education.

The good news is that science has shown executive function skills can be trained and improved if necessary.

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