Executive Functioning: Creating Critical Thinkers and Creative Problem Solvers

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive

Executive Functioning: Creating Critical Thinkers and Creative Problem Solvers“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
—Margaret Mead

We don’t know the world for which we are educating our children. When I was a child, I was promised flying cars. And while that has not yet happened, I do walk around with an incredibly powerful computer in my pocket—a device that has rendered meaningless all the hours I spent memorizing discrete facts (except for an occasional victory at trivia night). Most of us can neither imagine the future nor predict the skills and knowledge children will need to successfully navigate the workforce they will enter. However, we know that if children are able to analyze a problem, approach it with critical and creative thinking, and prioritize and implement a solution, they will probably be okay—no matter what the future holds.

Executive functioning is the umbrella term we use in education for the assortment of skills that go into creating thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University compares executive functioning to the air traffic control system at a busy airport. The brain of a child is constantly being inundated with messages from her environment. Executive functioning allows children to prioritize these messages and focus on those that are more important and relevant at a particular moment in time. It also includes the ability to plan an approach to an issue and to persist in implementing and the capability to shift gears based on new information. Finally, executive functioning helps children control impulses that might get in the way of focused work. People who have these skills are better equipped to think through and navigate whatever situations they may encounter.

As early childhood professionals, we support the development of these skills when we provide children with the following:

  • Open-ended materials. In the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood, these are called provocations—interesting materials that provoke new insights or spark new ideas. For example, adding egg cartons or unbreakable mirrors as a base for building in your block area will compel children to explore new aspects of the construction process.
  • Time to discover. Children need time to get involved in their play. When in a new situation or after encountering new materials, children need time to explore. Only after this initial analysis can they begin to delve into the business of really understanding how materials might be used. When we rush children through this process, they never get a chance to really think and consider different possibilities. It is through these deep investigations that true learning emerges.
  • Interesting questions to ponder. Too often, we ask children boring questions that require an uninspired one- or two-word answer. For all the energy we teachers dedicate to teaching children colors, shapes, and days of the week, one might suspect children’s futures hinge on learning this information. Executive-functioning skills are built as children are challenged to really think. Teachers can encourage thought through questions and conversation starters like “What do you think?” “What might happen if . . . ?” “What else could you do?” and “Tell me about . . .” If we want children to be thoughtful adults, we must build in opportunities for them to develop these thinking skills when they are little.
  • Play. As with so many questions in early childhood, the best answers are found in play. When children play, especially when they are involved in dramatic play, they get to use and develop executive functioning. As they pretend, they consider possibilities, focus on a selected role, shift their behavior based on the environment, and practice self-regulation. This type of play creates natural opportunities for children to develop the executive-functioning system that will serve them throughout their lives.

When we give children the space, materials, and time for play, we are not only making the present better for them, we are giving all people a gift for the future: a workforce that can create a world we all want to live in.

Check out the report Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System from the Center on the Developing Child to learn more about executive functioning and how to support development of these skills in early childhood.

Michelle SalcedoMichelle Salcedo, M.Ed., is the chief academic officer at the Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, a chain of over 120 childcare centers located across the United States. Her articles on young children frequently appear on the Sunshine House’s website and in the popular childcare journal Exchange. She has worked in the field of early childhood for over thirty years, starting as a “teacher’s helper” in her younger brother’s center. She has served as a teacher, director, trainer, and family educator in numerous childcare settings across Michigan, South Carolina, and Spain. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

Uncover the Roots of Challenging BehaviorMichelle is the author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior.

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