Believe it or not, by the time kids get school in kindergarten, A LOT is expected of them (maybe even earlier if their pre-school is super structured!). Kids go from parents helping them with daily functioning skills like dressing, eating, cleaning to teachers expecting them to do each of these things independently. And for many, it can be overwhelming. That’s because during the preschool years we see the earliest onset of the development of executive functioning skills, which are a set of skills that underlie the ability to plan ahead and meet goals, have self-control, follow multi-step directions, regulate emotions, understand the feelings of others, and stay focused despite environmental distractions. It’s kind of like telling a kid in a candy shop to walk in through the front door and immediately proceed through the store all the way to the back door and walk out without touching or doing anything, or asking a child to pick out a birthday gift for a sibling when they aren’t able to get anything for themselves -normal things that an adult is able to do, but a different story for toddlers altogether. It’s HARD for preschoolers, and each kiddo will develop the appropriate skills on their own time – some developing earlier than others (and that’s ok…it’s not a race!).
The good news is there a lots of things you can do to encourage the development of executive functioning skills with your toddler, and those things include both daily routines and habits as well as play based activities designed to target the brain’s cognitive ability to take information in, hold onto it, and process it to complete a task successfully.
In terms of daily routines and habits, there’s some simple things you can do to get the ball rolling. Use a hierarchical approach to giving directions, and gently transition to more complicated directions over time: start with one direction with minimal language at a time for little toddlers (1 and 2 years old) and include hand gestures or visuals. For example, you might point to your child’s shoes and say “Go get shoes”. As your toddler gets older, make your directions more complex and less scaffolded by adding steps (Go get shoes -> Get your shoes and your jacket -> Get your shoes, jacket, and mask) and language (Go get shoes -> First get your shoes, then get your jacket -> First get your shoes by the door, then get your jacket hanging on the hook, and finally put your hat on your head). Declutter spaces and areas where your child will complete daily functioning skills. If your goal is for your child to get ready to leave in the morning by himself, declutter the space where he would do so. Instead of having a bin of all the child’s shoes, jackets, supplies (etc.), just have the one pair of shoes, jacket, and hat you want him to be wearing. If your goal is for your child to dress himself, lay out the outfit the night before (let him pick!), so that when he wakes up he knows exactly what to do.
At school, early elementary teachers use LOTS of visuals, including pictures of things or directions, and visual schedules or checklists to help kids remember routines. You don’t need to turn your house into a school or a classroom, but you can create visuals through purposeful object placement. Laying your child’s clothes out the night before serves as a visual reminder in itself because your child will know what to do when he wakes up and sees his outfit there. If you want your child to get in the habit of washing their hands after using the bathroom, keep the soap visible, maybe even on the back of the toilet. Visual reminders help cue kids to what comes next, eventually habituating the routine or procedure so that it comes naturally and without much thought. Mnemonics or rhymes can help too, if your child has the sophisticated language capabilities to understand them.
A while back I went to a professional development on how to support the development of executive functioning in preschool, and it was loaded with fun games and activities that kids could do. I weeded through a lot of them and pulled out some fan favorites of Luca’s, which tend to be the ones I present to him as a ‘challenge’. What I love about the challenges we do is that room for differentiation. There’s endless ways of making these ‘challenges’ either easier or harder depending on the needs and capabilities of your child.
Up first is the lego challenge, and it’s simple: grab four different colored lego bricks and make a tower for you and a tower for your kid (both towers should have the same colors). The challenge? Build your tower and have your child try to create the same tower with his bricks – same color order and structure. You can vary the difficulty of this task by using more or less bricks, by changing the way you stack them (one directly on top of the other, or steps-style, or zig-zag style), or by limiting the visual model you show him – try showing him your tower for 30 seconds, then hiding it behind your back and having him recreate it – then have him check his work. This requires him to notice the colors needed, the order of the colors, and how the bricks need to be placed. It’s a lot of information to hold on to at once and requires his brain to manipulate that information successfully to complete the task.
Up next is the popsicle stick challenge. Create shapes or figures or designs or letters or numbers or words with popsicle sticks. Have your child watch you create yours first, then encourage him to create the same. He may attack it differently than the order in which you built, but that’s ok – he’ll work towards efficiency and strategy the more his brain develops (you might see him start with trial and error to recreate your figure but as he gets older and starts to understand you’ll see him go in a certain order, etc.). You can make it even harder by creating the partial figure for him, and then asking him to complete it. There’s a lot of visual-spatial reasoning in this one if you do the partial figure activity, so he’s essentially exercising multiple parts of his brain at once!
Last is the cup stacking challenge. I like to embed a little numeracy in this one by using numbers on my set and dots on his set. We start with 6, and I arrange the cups in any stack or order I choose. He has to mimic my creation, but instead of just matching my stack, he has to make sure the dots on his cups correspond to the numbers on my cups. This is hard for him! Usually I prompt him during this one with things like “Ok, let’s start with the bottom row first. What’s the first cup? Ok now that you have the first cup, which number goes to the right of that cup?” Over time, hopefully I can make trickier combinations and use less prompting, and he’ll start to problem solve the stack on his own!
There are also lots books, crafts, projects, and activities that help to promote the development of executive functioning skills. Basically, anything that requires strategy, multiple steps and limiting distractions is something that’s going to need a child to call on executive functioning: puzzles, ‘Where’s Waldo?’ activities or seek and find books (remember Highlights?!), freeze dance games, kid yoga (lots of executive functioning to figure out how to re-create poses and maintain balance!), board games, creating structures like block castles or marble runs, doing crafts that require multiple steps with multiple materials. The list is endless. And remember, to grow, kids often need to experience challenge, so never be afraid of the challenge!