Executive Function, Self-Regulation, & Classroom Management

Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

In order for learning to happen, students need to be able to focus, pay attention, engage, ignore distractions, and regulate emotions. These are called executive function skills. Executive function skills are developed over time with the help and guidance of the adults in their life. The executive function skills are not innate, so children are not born with them and will need help to develop them. In addition, these skills can be damaged by neglect, abuse, or drug/alcohol abuse in utero.

Just like physical therapy for the body, executive function skills can be practiced by “activities that foster creative play and social connection” (Center). Some examples for young children include games like freeze dance, red light/green light, matching puzzle games, etc. Other ways adults can support children in healthy executive function development is by “establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships (Executive).

Children learn how to focus, pay attention, and regulate their emotions the same way they learn their ABCs and 123s. Our job as educators, parents, and role models is to provide opportunities for children to develop these skills in a way that is proactive and positive, versus reactive and punitive. The proactive and positive way is especially important for those children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), as their brain development can be physically altered to negatively impact these skills.

To learn more about executive function and activities to build your student’s executive functions skills, visit:

Resource cited:

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. “Executive Function & Self-Regulation.” A Guide to Executive Function. 18 December 2019, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/.