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Professor David Daley

Professor David Daley: Enhancing Inhibitory Control in Early Years 

What are inhibitory controls?

Inhibitory controls are an important part of our executive functioning system, which help to regulate children’s behaviour. Specifically, an inhibitory control operates like an early warning system to help protect children and stop them from engaging in behaviours that may be risky or unhelpful. However, in the longer-term inhibitory control also helps protect children from being misled and making incorrect conclusions from misleading information. 

Why practice inhibitory controls?

Inhibitory control also helps children to take turns and share prooting; all of which supports strong peer relationships. For many children, their inhibitory control is inefficient for a variety of reasons which leads to observable differences in the extent to which their inhibitory control operates efficiently enough to protect. For example, two children may climb up on a high wall in the playground during break, so that they can jump off and have fun. However, the child with the efficient inhibitory control system will realise the wall is too high and not jump off, but the child with the inefficient inhibitory control system will jump off first before realising the wall is too high and injure themselves. 

As educators we therefore need to consider how we can help children to enhance their inhibitory control to enhance behaviour, promote learning and enhance peer development. Within the context of an early year’s setting, I have suggested below six simple, fun, and engaging ways that educators can include tasks in their settings which support the enhancement of inhibitory control.

Simon Says:

This is a classic game that allows children to practice and enhance inhibitory control, it is also often used in research studies as a test of inhibitory control. Consider incorporating a game of Simon Says into a transition period between lessons or as part of a “wake and shake” introduction to the days learning in the morning. 
 
Simon Says helps to practice inhibitory control because it requires children to follow the rules. For example, “put your hand on your headwhen Simon Says, but not to follow the rule when Simon doesn’t say “touch your knees.” It is an excellent way of practicing inhibitory control and children will enjoy the fact that staff can often find it just as difficult as children!

Young children sitting on floor clapping


Skipping:

Skipping is also a fantastic way to practice inhibitory control, introduce an additional element of exercise and challenge gender stereotypes! To successfully skip, children must inhibit their jump, track the arc of the rope, and jump at the correct moment. Otherwise, the rope trips you up. An activity such as ‘skipping’ overtime, will assist with building resilience in early years children as they learn to perfect the movement and control of the rope.

Dodgeball:

When in the school hall or playground, a quick game of dodgeball before the more formal elements of the PE lesson can help to practice inhibitory control. This type of physical activity is fun and requires very little set up time. Dodgeball is also an excellent way to practice such skills as the child needs to anticipate the arc of the ball as it is thrown and ensure they move to the left, right, above or below the arc of the ball. 
 
Simon Says, Skipping and Dodgeball are all active and somewhat raucous methods of practicing inhibitory control, but at times teachers may also value calmer methods as well!

Statutes:

This game is like Simon Says but can be incorporated into a music lesson. Ask children to dance and move around when the music is playing but as soon as the music pauses, they need to stand as still as possible.

Group of young children standing on gym mats


Music:

There is a lot of reputable research evidence to suggest that music training is associated with enhanced cognitive inhibitory control. So please don’t be afraid to get creative in your settings. Drumming in time with a group of children is a really great way of practicing inhibitory control, singing in a round is also another fantastic way to practice such skills as the child must focus on their part and inhibit joining the group who are either ahead or behind. 

Reaction time computer games:

Most parents worry about the amount of screen and gaming time their children engage in. However, we should be less worried about the physical element of playing the games and more worried about the content! There are plenty of simple games available for phones, tablets and computers that practice inhibitory control. For example, there is a digital version of ‘whack a mole’ which is a fun game that helps to practice the golden rule of inhibitory control; go/no go. The child needs to respond as quickly as possible when the moles pop out of the hole and not respond when they don’t. This is training the same core principle as Simon Says.

 

Two young girls play with ipad


The above games, activities and methods are just some suggestions about how you can enhance inhibitory control in the classroom, school hall and playground. I am sure you can identify other games that will help you to help your pupils enhance inhibitory control.
 
 
In addition to formally practicing inhibitory control with children in your settings or at home, remember to also acknowledge, praise and reward instances when children display good inhibitory control. The most obvious example is when children raise their hand and wait to be called on before answering or asking a question. Other examples include waiting their turn when sharing resources and not responding when provoked. Consider how you can provide even higher levels of reward and make the acknowledgement of reward even more visible to reinforce and motivate inhibitory control practice in the children in your classroom.

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