Can You Teach Executive Function Strategies to a Three-Year-Old?

Executive function strategies are crucial for success throughout your life. After all, the ability to think flexibly, organize and prioritize, set goals, and self-monitor and check are essential in the adult world. And, since many students, especially those with learning and attention issues such as ADHD and dyslexia, are at risk for executive function weaknesses, it makes sense to start teaching executive function strategies as early as possible, right? But can children even learn these strategies before they enter school? I can’t imagine teaching a toddler how to use a planner. Do children this young even have executive function processes?

Executive function processes begin to develop early on

Babies are not born with the ability to set goals and self-regulate; however, they are born with the ability to learn these skills. While executive function in the younger years looks different in the teen and adult years, it is present. Young children can learn to set goals, think flexibly, access working memory, and resist impulsive actions — all activities that rely on executive function processes.

How do we teach executive function strategies to young children?

Teaching strategies to young children looks different than teaching these strategies to teens. Strategies for prioritizing items on a study guide or breaking down the directions of a five-page paper are neither appropriate nor helpful to a young child. Instead, young children develop the ability to access executive function processes through interacting with environments that scaffold these processes for them. Settings that have established routines, adults and peers that model appropriate social behavior, and experiencing reliable and stable relationships have all been shown to promote healthy executive function development in young children. Time for creative and unstructure play and social interaction is also critical. Through these activities, young children lay the foundation for executive function processes. And as children get older, these processes will become increasingly sophisticated as the academic and social demands placed upon them become increasingly challenging.

So, hold off on teaching SMARTS to your toddler. Instead, create a supportive and structured environment that promotes self-regulation and encourages creative play. Then, when your child is in school and the executive function demands increase, it is time to begin explicit executive function strategy instruction through SMARTS or a similiar program.

For more information on executive function in the early years, check out The Center for the Developing Child.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director