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3 ways to teach executive function skills to preschoolers

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Teaching self-regulation skills is crucial for preschoolers, as these skills serve as the foundation for success in various aspects of their lives, including academics, social interactions, and emotional well-being. The importance of self-regulation skills in preschoolers can be supported by evidence and statistics from various studies and sources.


Why are self-regulation skills so important for preschoolers?


Improved academic performance

A study by McClelland et al. (2007) found that early self-regulation skills in children aged 4 to 6 are strongly related to their math, reading, and vocabulary skills in kindergarten. By helping children manage their attention, emotions, and behavior, self-regulation skills enable them to better focus on learning tasks and achieve academic success.


Source: McClelland, M. M., Acock, A. C., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). The impact of kindergarten learning-related skills on academic trajectories at the end of elementary school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 22(4), 471-490.


Positive social interactions

Self-regulation skills enable preschoolers to cooperate and get along with their peers. According to a study by Eisenberg et al. (1997), children with better self-regulation skills were more likely to be socially competent and have positive social interactions.


Source: Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Guthrie, I. K., & Reiser, M. (2000). Dispositional emotionality and regulation: Their role in predicting quality of social functioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 136-157.


Reduced behavioral problems

Preschoolers with strong self-regulation skills are less likely to exhibit behavioral problems. A study by Blair & Razza (2007) found that children with better self-regulation skills had fewer externalizing problems, such as aggression and hyperactivity.


Source: Blair, C., & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 78(2), 647-663.


Long-term benefits

A longitudinal study by Moffitt et al. (2011) demonstrated that children with higher self-regulation skills at age 5 had better health, financial stability, and lower rates of criminal activity in adulthood. This suggests that early self-regulation skills can have a significant impact on long-term success and well-being.


Source: Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., ... & Sears, M. R. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693-2698.


Teaching self-regulation skills to preschoolers is of paramount importance as it equips them with the tools they need to:

  • Succeed academically

  • Maintain positive social relationships

  • And make responsible decisions throughout their lives.

The evidence and statistics from various sources underline the significance of nurturing these skills in early childhood education.


How do I teach self-regulation skills to preschoolers?


Strategy 1: Emotional Literacy and Expression

One of the essential strategies for teaching self-regulation skills to preschoolers is fostering emotional literacy and expression.


This involves encouraging children to identify and label their emotions using picture cards, stories, and real-life situations while also teaching them the vocabulary to describe their feelings. To promote healthy expression of emotions, educators and parents should model appropriate emotional expression and provide guidance on suitable ways for children to express their feelings.


Furthermore, it is crucial to reinforce empathy and understanding by engaging in discussions about emotions and encouraging perspective-taking. This approach not only helps preschoolers recognize their emotions but also equips them with the tools needed to navigate and regulate their emotional responses effectively.


Strategy 2: Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

A second crucial strategy for teaching self-regulation skills to preschoolers involves incorporating mindfulness and self-awareness techniques into their daily routines.


Educators and parents can introduce mindfulness practices such as deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation to help children calm themselves and focus.


Fostering self-awareness is another essential aspect, which includes assisting children in recognizing their body's signals and encouraging self-reflection and self-monitoring.


By implementing calming and focusing activities, like mindful moments during transitions and age-appropriate guided meditations, children can develop greater self-regulation abilities. These techniques provide young learners with the necessary skills to manage their emotions and behavior effectively, setting them up for academic and social success.



Strategy 3: Teaching and Practicing Coping Skills

The third strategy for teaching self-regulation skills to preschoolers is to instruct and practice coping skills.


To achieve this, educators and parents can provide a toolbox of coping strategies, including teaching self-soothing techniques such as counting or hugging a stuffed animal, and introducing problem-solving steps.


Offering opportunities for practice is essential in reinforcing these skills, which can be done through role-playing scenarios and encouraging independent problem-solving.


Positive reinforcement plays a crucial role in fostering self-regulation; acknowledging and praising children's attempts at self-regulation, as well as celebrating their progress and success in developing these skills, boosts their confidence and motivation to continue practicing. This comprehensive approach to teaching coping skills ensures that preschoolers are well-equipped to handle emotional and behavioral challenges as they grow and develop.


Conclusion

Teaching self-regulation skills to preschoolers is of vital importance, as these skills lay the groundwork for success in various aspects of their lives, including academics, social interactions, and emotional well-being.


By utilizing strategies that foster emotional literacy and expression, mindfulness and self-awareness, and teaching coping skills, educators and parents can nurture these crucial abilities in young children. The evidence from various studies highlights the long-term benefits of developing self-regulation skills early in life, emphasizing the need to prioritize this aspect of early childhood education.


Consider learning more about executive function coaching, which can further enhance the development of self-regulation and other vital skills in preschoolers, setting them up for a lifetime of success and well-being.


About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists, and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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Executive Functions, Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Some of the links in this post may be Amazon.com affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, Executive Functions, Inc. will earn a commission.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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