Executive Function: From the Preschool Classroom to the Executive Board Room

young children play with building blocks

Since its inception in 2013, our vision of Pre-K 4 SA has been to develop a world-class workforce through high-quality early childhood education in one generation.

To make this vision a reality, we needed to go beyond the traditional Pre-K curriculum that prepares our children for Kindergarten and concentrate more on preparing them for life. By including a focus on the development of executive function skills, we are preparing our children for success, beyond the preschool classroom to the executive board room and everywhere in between.

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes or neurologically-based skills (i.e., mental control and self-regulation) that are necessary to perform functions that help us reach our goals.

Executive functions are sometimes referred to as the “air traffic controllers” of the brain. They take in and analyze the incoming data, filter out distractions and allow us to respond in the most effective, appropriate manner.

Many scientists and educators have developed their own working definitions and lists of key executive functions. The three most commonly discussed executive functions include working memory, inhibitory control which includes self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility.

Using the HighScope curriculum, teachers at Pre-K 4 SA also facilitate the development of initiative, emotional control, planning, organization, problem solving, and self-monitoring or evaluating.

Working Memory – This is the ability to hold information long enough to accomplish the task at hand, like following directions, staying focused during small group, or making a plan and following through with it.

Inhibitory Control – This involves the ability to stop a behavior or postpone it until a more appropriate time. For young children, this includes running to get something they want when running is not appropriate in the setting, grabbing an object from another child, or shouting out answers or inappropriate comments.

Cognitive Flexibility – This is sometimes referred to as “shift” because we need to be able to quickly shift from one focus to another and back again without totally breaking our concentration.

Initiative – Children need to be able to take initiative and begin projects, complete tasks on their own and express their own ideas.

Emotional Control – Children should be taught that all emotions are okay to experience and that there are socially acceptable ways of expressing them.

Planning – Children are taught to create and carry out a plan for their work time every day. As the school year progresses, the plans become more detailed and elaborate.

Organization – The classroom is set up for children to encourage independence. All materials and shelves are labeled so children can keep the room neat and tidy.  Materials are also arranged by function to help children see how different objects can have a common use or purpose.

Problem Solving – Problem solving can be viewed in two ways. Children can solve problems with materials. They need to be persistent and feel safe in taking risks by trying multiple solutions and thinking outside that proverbial box. The other type of problem solving is with another child. Often the problem involves an object that both children want at the same time. We use six steps of conflict resolution to help the children identify the problem and come up with a solution both parties agree will solve it.

Self-Monitoring – Of course there are multiple opportunities throughout a typical day for children to quickly reflect on a decision, action or piece of work, but HighScope curricula creates dedicated times in daily schedules for such reflection. After children make and carry out their daily plan, they are given the opportunity to reflect on how closely they followed their plan (what worked and what didn’t work), if they changed their plan altogether, and why.

We know people are not born with the skills, but the ability to develop them. Therefore, we take advantage of every opportunity to set the foundation upon which our children can build. Pre-K 4 SA recognizes the importance of these executive function skills to be successful throughout life.

Written by: Erin Burnett, assistant director of Curriculum and Instruction

Defining Social and Emotional Learning to Ensure Success

Defining Social and Emotional Learning to Ensure Success

It was not too long ago that social and emotional learning (SEL) in pre-k was thought of as sharing, playing nicely with others, and doing what your teacher asked. While these skills are definitely part of SEL, they are only the very basics of what we know to be foundational skills that impact cognition, academic learning, relationships and wellness.

Very often we think of development as occurring in isolated categories, with developmental milestones in areas such as language, cognition, and social and emotional skills being associated with specific ages. In truth, you really can’t separate them. They occur simultaneously and impact each other along the way.

The brain of a child during the early childhood years is undergoing such rapid development that it’s crucial educators address SEL in the same manner they address language and literacy, with research-based curriculum and dedication to effective teaching strategies.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional and Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process by which individuals acquire and apply knowledge and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy for others, set and achieve goals, form relationships, and make responsible decisions.”  Social and emotional learning skills include five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

The outcomes associated with well-developed social and emotional skills are significant. School-age children have better academic performance and reduced disciplinary issues. Long-term outcomes include an increased likelihood of having healthy relationships, good mental health and stable employment. Meanwhile, there is a decreased likelihood of using drugs and being incarcerated. Studies have shown that employers specify competencies directly associated with social and emotional skills as critical in a highly-skilled 21st century workforce.

At Pre-K 4 SA, social and emotional learning is embedded in our HighScope curriculum. HighScope’s approach to teaching SEL is through effective teacher instructional practices that include positive adult-child interactions, and emphasize active participatory learning, regular routines and attention to an optimal learning environment. Children learn conflict resolution skills in the classroom as they navigate what is often their first classroom experience.

Pre-K 4 SA’s Social and Emotional Learning Team, comprised of behavior specialists and a licensed specialist in school psychology, supports SEL for all children and works to promote accessibility and meaningful inclusion for children with special needs. The SEL Team maintains a strong focus on helping children develop self-regulation skills that are crucial to building other SEL competencies such as relationship skills and responsible decision making. When children are able to self-regulate, they are better able to focus their attention, respond appropriately when upset, and learn new material. This contributes to a reduced need for more restrictive educational settings.

One of the most important aspects of solid social and emotional learning is parent involvement. Parents and caregivers are the experts on their child, as they know their child best. They provide teachers with valuable information that allows the school team to work together with them for best results. This coordinated effort between school, families and communities is what ensures success.

Written by: Maria Bayoumi, Pre-K 4 SA’s licensed specialist in school psychology

Twins Overcome Health Challenges and Thrive at Pre-K 4 SA


Six months into her pregnancy, Maria Montiel began to feel contractions, and her mother’s intuition told her it was too soon for her to deliver her twins. After suffering a miscarriage at the same time during a previous pregnancy, she knew she needed medical attention.

Maria entered the emergency room, with tears in her eyes, fearing for her babies’ lives. She saw the twins on the fetal monitors and was assured by her doctor that everything would be OK.

Liam and Ryder were born micro preemies at 24 weeks. With weak immune systems and only a 50% chance of living, the twins had to remain in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for more than 115 days.

As the twins grew, many medical challenges followed, including seizures. David and Maria Montiel viewed their home as a safe haven to protect their children from viruses that could become fatal for their children.

Scientific and medical research shows that the most rapid brain development occurs in the first few years of life. While the Montiels were doing what they felt was in the best interest of their twins to keep them healthy, they recognized that the lack of socialization with other children at an early age could cause a setback in the twins’ early education and social development. Both parents were still apprehensive about enrolling their children in a pre-k program but knew it had to be done if the boys were to build a strong foundation for their future.

“We were afraid to leave our lives—our children—in the hands of a school that would not pay attention to them and their health,” Maria said.

For the first four years of the twins’ lives, Liam and Ryder were an ever-present fixture at their parents’ side. That all began to change when the Montiels registered at Pre-K 4 SA. During Welcome Week, the parents let the boys spread their wings and play with other children their age during parent orientation. Maria and David were still hesitant to let their twins out of their sight, but the twins were ecstatic to have met and played with other children.

The Montiels also noticed that Pre-K 4 SA did something that many schools don’t do anymore.

“When the teachers came to the house for a home visit, I knew that Liam and Ryder were heading to a great school. The attention that their teachers demonstrated is unheard of,” David said.

The Montiels have always felt welcomed and confident in the safety of their children at the Pre-K 4 SA West Education Center. That trust was put to the test when Liam suffered a seizure in class just two months into the school year.

Because of the Montiels’ concerns regarding the health of Liam and Ryder, the Pre-K 4 SA staff, including Mark Martinez, Liam’s Pre-K 4 SA teacher, designed a personal emergency plan for both children. The emergency plan was executed correctly, and Liam received successful medical attention in a timely matter.

“Communication from the parents was important. So when [the seizure] happened, it was controlled in the most appropriate manner for everyone involved,” said Martinez.

Pre-K 4 SA listened to the Montiels’ concerns and goals for their twins and implemented strategies to address the boys’ individual needs. It was essential to strengthen their social and communication skills so the twins were enrolled into separate classes.

Ryder had been the more outgoing and active of the two, and he tended to answer for his brother. Placing the twins in separate classes was essential to help Liam develop socially. As a result, Liam has flourished by becoming more engaged in group activities and is eager to share his work with others.

Since enrolling at Pre-K 4 SA, the Montiels have taken advantage of the program’s family specialist and parent liaisons to be involved in all aspects of their children’s early education. They have attended free family workshops and training opportunities offered by Pre-K 4 SA to actively learn more about their children to be consistent in continuing their learning at home.

“The Montiels are always helping in some way,” said Virginia Sandoval, parent liaison at the West Center. “They are very supportive and motivated to help their children grow and succeed.”

David and Maria are grateful to have found a high-quality pre-k program that has helped their twins thrive despite their health challenges. They have seen how much their children have learned and grown in a matter of months.

Liam and Ryder have been accepted to Gardendale Elementary, Pre-K 4 SA’s new partner. The Montiels plan to stay involved in their children’s education and only seek out high-quality programs which truly make a difference.

Classroom inclusion makes all the difference

children play with water hoe and bottles outside

Delia Ruiz was sure that her 4-year-old son, Dylan Granato, was more than ready to start Pre-K. He was a sharp, young boy who already knew his colors, shapes, and alphabet. She was excited to finally enroll her first child into Pre-K 4 SA.

But in a matter of two weeks, Delia received a call from the school asking her to meet to discuss a concern with her son.

Delia attentively listened as Mrs. Tamara Clary, Dylan’s teacher, and Kimberly Juarez, behavior specialist at the South Education Center, explained how Dylan came in with self-regulation issues, lacked communication skills, and would push and shove his peers.

“He was having a hard time, behavioral wise, with sharing and transitions, and a lot of things. So I thought, ‘Do I need to take him out of school?’ I started thinking that he was an issue!” Delia said. “I had mixed emotions and I didn’t know what to do.”

But what Delia soon realized was that Pre-K 4 SA personnel didn’t allow her to feel alone. Better yet, they acted with genuine personal interest and began to explain that Dylan was demonstrating characteristics of autism. He stayed in the standard classroom but the Pre-K 4 SA team created a plan of action to help Dylan.

Pre-K 4 SA is an inclusive environment, and part of the reason we use the HighScope curriculum is that even children with special needs are able to engage in the classroom and still be a part of it in an authentic way.

“Inclusion is very important for children with special needs because they learn from their peers. In a classroom, they get to be with children their age and have social situations through which they learn to interact with one another,” Clary said.

After the initial meeting, Delia implemented the recommendations provided by Pre-K 4 SA’s Social and Emotional Learning Team. At the same time, she educated herself about behavioral issues and autism. She researched online articles on the topics, sought out local groups, and even enrolled in a Parent Leadership Academy at Region 20.

Delia realized that consistency and teamwork are very important in order for Dylan to continue learning. Not only does she have to continue learning about these topics, but since Dylan has a close relationship with his grandparents, she also has to pass on this knowledge to them.

Delia’s determination to find a solution for her child underscores the vital role parents play in their children’s education. And when parents, teachers, and behavioral specialists work together, children thrive.

“The better educated a parent is about what is going on with their child, the better advocate they can become. As they move through different school systems and through life, they can help support their child,” said Maria Bayoumi, Pre-K 4 SA’s licensed specialist in school psychology.

Dylan’s mother, family, and Pre-K 4 SA staff noticed that in a matter of only six months he’s come a long way!

Josylnn Benitez, teacher assistant, and Elisandra Guajardo, a Trinity University graduate and candidate for a master’s in school psychology, assist Dylan on a daily basis with his class activities. They both make sure he follows a personalized schedule and they continuously help him strengthen his social and communication skills.

At the beginning of the year, Dylan struggled to make new friends but now every morning, his peers are anxiously waiting for him. Even though strengthening skill deficits is an ongoing process, Dylan is smart and learns very quickly.

When you mention Dylan’s name to the South Education Center staff members, you can’t help but notice their faces light up. His impactful experience here at Pre-K 4 SA has touched so many and his experience demonstrates the importance of inclusion.

“We are lucky to have him and hope Dylan stays connected with us because we know he will achieve great things in life,” Benitez said.

Currently, Dylan is undergoing evaluations for autism; however, Pre-K 4 SA’s focus is the identification and targeting of skill deficits, and providing meaningful inclusion instead of solely focusing on obtaining a diagnosis label. We want children, like Dylan, to be ready for Kindergarten and to excel for the rest of their lives.