New Research on Executive Function in Preschoolers

Here is an enlightening piece of research for those of us raising the strange little creatures known as preschoolers, and those of us providing treatment to families raising the little barbarians as well. Research by Colorado Professor Yuko Munakata suggests that three-year-olds are often listening when you give them directions — they simply choose to ignore you until there is evidence that the directions are needed. From Science Daily:

“… For example, let’s say it’s cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think ‘OK it’s cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm,’ ” said Chatham. “But what we suggest is that this isn’t what goes on in a 3-year-old’s brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it.”

Munakata doesn’t claim to be a parental expert, but she does think their new study has relevance to parents’ daily interactions with their toddlers.

“If you just repeat something again and again that requires your young child to prepare for something in advance, that is not likely to be effective,” Munakata said. “What would be more effective would be to somehow try to trigger this reactive function. So don’t do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like ‘I know you don’t want to take your coat now, but when you’re standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom.”

I would argue that this tendency to ignore advice until there is evidence to support its necessity extends beyond preschool — I still go through this with my nine-year-old! The point is, you can probably save your breath and a lot of extra annoyed feelings by accepting that your small child’s brain does not operate in a way that tends to accept futuristic warnings. Showing them what will happen if they don’t listen, or helping them imagine the scenario of how they will benefit if they heed your directions, will probably be more effective than just repeating yourself ad nauseum.

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