by Jane Hutchison and Deborah Phillips, Georgetown University
Children begin kindergarten with varying levels of school readiness—a term often used to describe how prepared children are to succeed in school. More specifically, children who enter kindergarten with foundational math, reading, and vocabulary skills are more likely to succeed in school than those who do not. 
Many parents help to prepare their children for formal schooling by engaging in number and literacy activities. However, they may not know that they can also help to prepare their children for school by supporting the development of executive function skills.
Here we define what capacities the term executive function captures, describe why it is important for academic achievement, and offer suggestions for parents to help support the development of these important skills prior to kindergarten entry.
The term executive function (EF) captures a set of cognitive skills that help children to appropriately manage their behavior and cognitive resources in order to successfully achieve a goal.  The core executive function skills include:
Overall, executive functions allow young children to pay attention, remember and follow instructions, and think flexibly. From this definition, it is clear that such skills should be important for success in a classroom environment and, in fact, a large body of research has emerged linking early executive functioning skills to academic achievement.
EF skills are important for many academic skills such as reading and math. [3,4] However, EF skills seem to be especially important for early math learning (and early math learning seems to strengthen EF skills), perhaps because learning math involves mastering steps towards achieving a goal, namely the solution of a problem or puzzle. [3,4,5]
More specifically, studies have shown that young children who begin kindergarten with better executive function skills have an advantage in terms of math performance that persists into the elementary school years . This relation is not hard to understand when you think about all that goes into, for example, figuring out how many apples have been put in a basket based on those that are left on the table.
The importance of this relation between math and EF becomes even greater in light of evidence that not only do early math skills play a role in later math achievement, but in reading achievement as well.  In fact, some have speculated that it is math’s special role in fostering EF skills that may account for this powerful link between math and other dimensions of school success. Consider the role of EF, for example, in retelling a story and in reading comprehension.
Although many early childhood programs are working actively to support the development of executive functioning skills in preschool, [6,7] parents can also play an influential role in promoting the development of these important cognitive skills at home.
It is well known that parent-child interactions play an influential role in the healthy development of children, including the development of EF. One way that parents can easily support EF development is by promoting these skills during everyday activities such as play. Below are some tips for how parents can support the development of strong EF skills in their children during common play activities such as Duplos®, puzzles, storybooks, and card games.
Before starting the activity, encourage your child to organize her materials, or set out a sequence of steps, in order to reach the end goal.
While playing, encourage your child to make comparisons, shift perspectives, and approach the activity in different ways.
Encourage turn-taking while playing with your child. Turn-taking promotes inhibitory control, as she has to inhibit her desire to act (or respond) while waiting her turn.
Ask your child questions or play games that require her to hold multiple pieces of information in mind in order to arrive at the correct answer.
By incorporating EF support into everyday play, you are helping your child develop essential cognitive skills that are important for later academic success!
Jane Hutchison is a doctoral student at Georgetown University, and a member of DREME's Making More of Mathematics and Parent and Early Caregiver Engagement projects. Deborah Phillips is Vice Dean for Faculty at Georgetown College, a professor of developmental psychology in the Department of Psychology, and affiliated faculty at the McCourt School of Public Policy.
 Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., ... & Sexton, H. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental psychology, 43(6), 1428.
 Center on the Developing Child (2017). Key concepts: Executive function and self-regulation. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
 Best, J. R., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Relations between executive function and academic achievement from ages 5 to 17 in a large, representative national sample. Learning and individual differences, 21(4), 327-336.
 Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Germeroth, C. (2016). Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36, 79-90.
 McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Duncan, R., Bowles, R. P., Acock, A. C., Miao, A., & Pratt, M. E. (2014). Predictors of early growth in academic achievement: The head-toes-knees-shoulders task. Frontiers in psychology, 5.
 Bierman, K. L., Nix, R. L., Greenberg, M. T., Blair, C. & Domitrovich, C. E. (2008). Executive functions and school readiness intervention: Impact, moderation, and mediation in the Head Start REDI program. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 821–843.
 Raver, C.C., Jones, S.M., Li-Grining, C.P., Zhai, F., Bub, K., & Pressler, E. (2011). CSRP’s impact on low-income preschoolers’ pre-academic skills: Self-regulation as a mediating mechanism. Child Development, 82, 362–378.