Facts for Living: Child, adult interaction helps develop important skills

By Rebecca McFarland, Frontier Extension Agent

112814-factsforlivingIn my last article I shared information about “serve and return”, the back-and-forth interaction that occurs between an infant or young child and their parent or other significant adult in their life. Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture. Executive function and self-regulation are two skills that are also developed during early childhood. And, if children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions of their environments – their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired.

The ability to hold onto and work with information, focus thinking, filter distractions, and switch gears is known as executive function and self-regulation skills. These skills rely on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Children aren’t born with these skills, but they are born with the potential to develop them. The full range of abilities continues to mature during the teen years and even into adulthood.

080714-facts-for-living1Working memory controls our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time. Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift our attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings. Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

In infancy, interactions with adults help babies to focus attention, build working memory, and manage reactions to stimulating experiences. Games such as Peekaboo, Pat-a-Cake and other lap games with young infants, are predictable and include some basic rules that guide adult and child behavior. Repetition helps infants remember and manage their own behavior to fit the game’s rules. Hiding games, imitation or copying games, simple role play, finger plays and simple conversations are all ways to help infants and toddlers, 6- to 18-months, develop working memory, self-control and build attention.

Older toddlers are rapidly expanding their language skills, which play an important role in the development of executive function and self-regulation. Language also helps young children understand and follow increasingly complex rules – both those that regulate behavior and those that apply to simple games. Active games require toddlers to focus and sustain their attention on a goal, inhibit unnecessary and ineffective actions, and try things in new ways if a first attempt fails. Provide many materials and opportunities for children to try new skills, such as throwing and catching balls, a balance beam, running up and down an incline, jumping, etc. They may not always succeed, but the practice is very important. This is a learning process.

Executive function – skills for life and learning

Simple games such as Follow the Leader, Freeze and Ring Around the Rosie challenge working memory and inhibitory control. Finger plays, or song and rhymes with hand gestures to match, challenge children’s attention, working memory and inhibitory control.

Preschool-age children’s executive function and self-regulation skills grow at a fast pace, so it’s important to adapt activities to match the skills of each child. Imaginary play, storytelling (by the child), song and game movement challenges, and sorting and matching games, all help them develop self-regulation, working memory, focused attention, and cognitive flexibility.

As children develop these abilities, adults play a critical role in supporting the development of these skills, first by helping children complete challenging tasks, and then by gradually stepping back to let children manage the processes independently.


McFarland_RebeccaRebecca McFarland is the Frontier Extension District family and child development agent. For more information, she can be contacted at the Extension district’s Ottawa office, 1418 S. Main, Suite 2, Ottawa, KS 66067, or call 785-229-3520, or email [email protected].


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