Developing self-regulation and executive function are two of the most important and time sensitive developmental tasks for young children. These are terms that are not understood enough in education, politics and wider society but luckily The Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University offers this nice plain language introduction to these concepts on their excellent website (which is definitely worth a visit).
“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses”
Mature and successful adults mostly know how to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses. I will assume these skills are valued by all parts of adult society (including edutwitter) and what we wish everyone in our education system will leave with. The main argument for this blog is that child-directed play (which is always somehow a controversial topic in the world of UK education), is, among many other things, how young children are genetically hardwired to learn how to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses. Their play, and our caring and meaningful interactions with them, are essential ingredients in their self-regulation and executive function
I work in a 2 year old funded nursery program for “disadvantaged” children. While I am under no illusion that any amount of early childhood education can erase the fukk effects of systemic poverty and racism, I take my job seriously. I work hard and constantly reflect to make sure they feel safe and secure, provide them with an enabling environment to explore and interact in way that encourage their learning and development. I think most people walk by and see “cute” kids “just” playing (and getting upset over small things, and not obeying adults and being supposedly “terrible twos” in general). They are missing a lot, but it is not their fault. We have centuries of cultural and ideological baggage that judges young children as not much more than empty-headed “adults-to-be” but that is maybe a different blog post.
Much of what many adults don’t like or understand in children is their lack of these skills in question. One small American study illustrated a large “Expectation Gap” between adult ideas of when children develop “self-control” versus what the last few decades of brain science tell us. I’d bet my next pay check it is not very different here in the UK. It might not feel like it at times but the truth is that young children are not deliberately out to do our heads in.
While of course I still think they are cute, I have come along enough in my understanding of early childhood development to see them as as fully human in the here and now and I look at their play and interests very differently than I used to.
One of my key children is obsessed with doors and locks, let’s call him… uh, Door Master. When anyone wants to leave or enter one of the electronically operated doors he insists on using my badge to let them in or out. When we are are outside he loves practicing opening and closing one of the gate doors and trying to lock it with my key. Throughout the session I need to balance his interests and developmental needs with my need to get my work done while keeping my patience!
Door Master is a professional on the gate door knob but he is still working on using the key and I give him lots of time to practice with it. Sometimes I model and narrate how I do it a few times. Other times if he gets frustrated I will offer a few words of empathy or just let him deal with the frustration himself. Inevitably at one point he will get into a battle of wills with another child innocently trying to get to the other outside area. I then come by to tell the other child “say ‘let me out please’” or tell the Door Master myself. Sometimes they work it out entirely without me, sometimes my coaching helps them work it out and sometimes I have to open the door against Door Master’s wishes.
I am utterly bored of detailing the learning and development inherent in these sort of scenarios but it is my responsibility in a system that doesn’t seem able to see or respect young children so here it goes:
How Door Master is developing Executive Function
Setting goals: He is fascinated with doors and keys and he is insatiable in his self-chosen goal of learning how to use my key successfully.
Filtering distractions: Our nursery is much busier than his home and as he practices with my key his brain is filtering out other distractions while he attends to his task at hand.
Achieving goals: He does not yet have the strength or coordination to consistently unlock or lock the door but he is gaining it with all of his practice (and other physical play).
How Door Master is developing Self-Regulation.
Controlling impulses: When he comes into conflict with children trying to get by he is slowly but surely hitting them in frustration less and even at times increasingly opening the door for them when they or I ask him too. Everything else I could say about this is summed up by Daniel Hodgins, “don’t make moral issues out of developmental ones.” (But this is probably another blog post.)
Tolerating stress: We all know young children want to do more than they are immediately capable of. In a Nursery setting it’s our job to give them time and space to practice, practice practice. Door Master seems to loves the challenge overall but he does get frustrated at times. This is actually a form of stress that is actually quite good for him as coping with challenges is a part of life.
I’m not bothering to link to all the research behind this stuff but the point is pretty simple: if we want children to grow up able to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses we need to give them some time, space, freedom and support to actually get on with practicing it all. It doesn’t appear out of thin air and there are a few decades of research into early childhood development and neuroscience that give us some clues on how to best support it. I know it’s inconvenient for the current crop of ghouls in the Department for Education but a lot of this does involves play. If it makes them happier we can start calling it “self-regulation and executive function practice” maybe?