Lili-Ann Kriegler

CEO Kriegler-Education and Education Consultant (part-time) at Independent Schools Victoria

May 17, 2022
Published on: Linkedin
2 min read

As parents or early childhood educators, we are always interested in strategies to optimise executive function and facilitate learning. Executive function is complex, but it helps to distinguish some of its key elements.

When we’re born, we have no filter to manage the bombardment of incoming stimuli. Willam James, often called the father of psychology, says babies are born in a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’! (James, 2021). But the miraculous human brain immediately engages inbuilt cognitive processes to identify patterns and allocate meaning to sensations.

The brain is the only organ built from both inside and outside the body. It sorts random experiences and records patterns of meaning into long-term memory. Over time it becomes so efficient that it seamlessly accesses past memories to inform a current task, filter out what is non-essential, predict what might occur next, gather new information in the present and plan for the future. This complex ability to bridge from what we know to what we need to do is executive function. There are many components to children’s executive function, but it can be enhanced by leveraging three elements: self-regulation, working memory and cognitive flexibility.


Nothing can be achieved without attention. Focusing on something without distractions is a learned skill. I tutored a student who struggled with self-regulation. During our lessons, she was acutely aware of my mischievous Tonkinese cats. I purposely chose not to eliminate their presence and in one session she demonstrated her increased ability to manage her distractibility when she grabbed the back of her head and said, ‘no turning to look at the cats’. We aren’t born with strong executive functioning, but we have the inbuilt potential to become conscious of, develop and master it.

As parents or educators, we need to adjust our expectations to the age of the child. Very young children are less able to divert their attention to something we would like them to. All is not lost, however. The trick is to enter their world, notice what has captured their attention and share their gaze. Tuning in between eighteen months and three years means regularly observing what is interesting to the child and expanding their understanding through your commentary. If you follow what children are engaged with, you can support them to interpret and even broaden their gaze. You can build their language and concepts in that space. There is evidence that if you focus where they focus the cognitive complexity and motivation accompanying the learning you provide are greatly enhanced. Children generally invest more in their own ideas (Stipek & Seal, 2001). Of course, you can’t do this all the time, but when you do it pays dividends.

From three to five years of age, children’s cognitive functioning develops to the point where they can learn to control their attention. However, they won’t do it unless there is an expectation that they need to and they practice it. Here the skill is to alert the child to focus on and make it as inviting and interesting as we can. But life isn’t always that obliging. Sometimes they just have to do stuff that isn’t fun!

Delayed gratification

The next step is to introduce delayed gratification. The late Nobel nominee and renowned cognitive psychologist, Professor Reuven Feuerstein, emphasised giving any task meaning. Not content meaning, but meaningful purpose. Give children the ‘why’, not the ‘what’ of a task. Sometimes the ‘why’ is further along the path and the ‘what’ is just a steppingstone. They may not like doing a maths problem, but if they know they are building their mind, they might increase their effort. Giving the child a reason or purpose to complete a task they may not be very fond of or interested in, is the beginning of a lifelong habit that will greatly pay off in the future.

Working memory

Working memory is the ability to hold in mind all the elements needed to achieve a task. For example, we might say to a child, ‘Go downstairs to the garage and get me the hammer on the middle shelf of the tool cupboard’. Or, ‘Mary loves pink lollies and Sam loves yellow ones. Sort these lollies and tell me how many I should give to Mary and how many to Sam? How many lollies are left?’ Research indicates that adults usually hold five to seven pieces of information in their short-term memory. But that is not the whole story.

Working memory has two important components auditory and visuospatial. The auditory part is both what we hear and how we rehearse or repeat it to ourselves mentally to keep the task on track. The visuospatial part is what we visualise and map to know where we are in space. This might be in the real world, or by accessing images in long-term memory. Spatial awareness is more than simply visualising something, it is understanding how things are connected and related to one another.

We can help children to develop and use their working memory in several ways:

  1. Don’t overload the cognitive task in the first place. Make it clear and manageable
  2. Start the instruction with ‘big picture’ information first and then give the detail
  3. Draw attention to both verbal and spatial elements. Ask children to repeat the task verbally and to describe in detail the visual and spatial aspects of it
  4. If children are old enough, they might record information in lists, drawings or diagrams until they are able to manipulate and visualise the information abstractly

Working memory has its own central executive!

An underemphasised and less understood aspect of working memory is that it has its own central executive. When we complete a task, we automatically prioritise and order our mental and physical actions. Children might not do this automatically, so spending time unpacking and explaining priority and sequencing will be time well spent (McLeod, 2012).

Cognitive flexibility

As children mature, they develop a skill called the theory of mind. They understand others have thoughts and ideas which may be the same or different from theirs. They become less egocentric. Perspectives change depending on contexts. Children begin to behave differently or think differently depending on the context. Children in the four to five age range begin to develop empathy and understand different points of view. This adds flexibility and perspective to their thinking and we can encourage this ability by talking with them about how others might think and feel.

We might alert children to several ideas to enhance their cognitive understanding and flexibility.

  1. Where are they situated in space and time?
  2. What role are they enacting?
  3. What is their goal?
  4. Who are they with?
  5. What do they need to consider in relation to all the above?

When children become aware that their behaviour and problem-solving are adapted in relation to the questions above, they become more successful navigators of the world.

I wish you luck as you work with students to enhance self-regulation, working memory and cognitive flexibility to make them high functioning and adaptive thinkers and problem solvers.


James, W. (1890) The Principles of Psychology

McLeod, S. (2012). Working memory.

Stipek, D., & Seal, K. (2001). Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning.

Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and award-winning author of Edu-Chameleon for educators and Roots and Wings for parents. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria, Australia and she runs her own consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at

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