Domain 1: Approaches to Learning, Executive Functioning, and Cognitive Development

The Approaches to Learning, Executive Functioning, and Cognitive Development domain covers the inclinations, dispositions, attitudes, habits, and styles that reflect the diverse ways that children learn. This domain is not about what skills children acquire, but how they construct meaning and how children orient themselves to learning.


The developers of the Idaho Early Learning eGuidelines chose to link approaches to learning and executive functioning with cognitive development. Compelling research in cognitive psychology and brain development are expanding our understanding about “how“ and “when” the complexities of thinking and learning develop. The focus moves beyond looking at the development of brain structures and functions and encompasses the growth of the mind. The adult work is to support children in this process of active self-organization that creates new knowledge and understanding from everyday experiences.

This domain spans development from birth through third grade. The Idaho K-12 Standards do not address approaches to learning and cognition. The ripple of cognitive development from birth through age eight is notable. Developmental learning and skills are essential to understanding children’s growth. The goals of Domains 1 and 3 were requested and needed by special education professionals to address needs and plan services.

Age Group
This domain relates to children from birth through 3rd grade.
A child playing with a puzzle

Approaches to learning, executive functioning, and cognitive development are the platform on which learning takes place and include attributes which predispose children toward success in school and in life. Acknowledging children’s capacity to figure out a problem, apply their skills, and make larger meanings as their cognitive skills develop is foundational to a child’s continuing growth in approaching learning. By supporting children’s development of executive function skills and nurturing children’s individual approaches to learning, adults help children use their current knowledge and understanding of their world as a basis for creating meaningful new experiences and ideas.

General Definition

Executive functions are the mental processes that provide the foundation for critical thinking and problem-solving, planning, decision-making and executing tasks. Executive function skills depend on three types of brain function: cognitive self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility. Children’s approaches to learning include motivation, attitudes, habits, and cognitive styles that are demonstrated as they engage in learning and respond to different situations. Even though the ways in which children manage their executive functions and express their approaches to learning may vary according to their temperament or cultural contexts, the following goals are essential for children’s success in school and in life. For the purposes of the Idaho Early Learning eGuidelines, Domain 1: Approaches to Learning, executive functioning, and Cognitive Development include:

Curiosity and Interest indicate children’s sense of inquisitiveness, interest in pursuing new information, keenness for new knowledge, and desire to learn.

Creativity and Invention indicate children’s ability to extend existing knowledge; and to have a “great idea” and make it happen.Initiative indicates children’s willingness to take on tasks, volunteer to participate in learning activities, and take reasonable risks in learning new information.

Persistence and Attentiveness indicate children’s ability to stay with and concentrate attention to complete a task without being distracted or frustrated. Sometimes persistence is demonstrated by leaving a project and returning later for more work or elaboration.

Reflection and Interpretation indicate children’s ability to absorb, think about, compare, question, and understand knowledge and information to inform future actions and learning. Concept Formation indicates children’s ability to imitate and remember people, carry out routines, and categorize information and objects from prior experience.

Reasoning and Logic indicates children’s growing skills to create and analyze attributes (similarities, differences, and associations between objects, events and people). These goals include causation, critical and analytical thinking, and problem-solving.

Representational Thought and Play indicates children’s ability to explore actions and sensory experiences. Functional play is exploring objects or materials in the absence of fantasy and includes sensory play (sand/water) and physical exploration.

Pretending is a complex form of intellectual activity and a critical element in symbolic thinking and the symbolization process. In pretend play, children take on roles, have objects that are not present, and use things as substitutes for real objects. Through symbolic play and maturation, children come to distinguish between fantasy and reality without losing either. Play is both the means and manifestation of children’s growing understanding of the world and their roles within their culture.

Supporting individual differences, language, and cultural diversity

A discussion about Domain 1: Approaches to Learning, Executive Functioning, and Cognitive Development acknowledges that children learn and express themselves in different ways. Skilled caregivers appreciate and value the diversity of children, families, and cultures; and strive to observe, understand, and support each child as an individual. Some children look and watch; seeming to figure out the situation before they move to engage. Other children may have great tactile sensitivity and use touch to explore or alternately to hold back from new sensations. Parents and caregivers can create supportive environments in which children are allowed to take risks and try new ideas, and in which creative processes of learning and expressing self are nurtured and valued. Caregivers who use children’s current knowledge and understanding of their world to build on that knowledge, help children create meaning from new experiences, relationships, and concepts.

Children with differing abilities, with developmental delays or who are at risk for developmental delays, or with special talents may require particular attention and perhaps adaptations to foster their engagement in learning. Children are exposed to cultural patterns and values in their immediate context of family as well as in the neighborhood, community, and environment at large. At the family level, differences in child-rearing practices, including parental behaviors of instruction, modeling, and responses to children’s initiatives influence children’s learning approaches. Culture may influence children’s work styles, the way they approach and interpret experiences, and their orientation to action or reflection. Some cultures encourage children to obey and defer to adult opinions while other cultures encourage children to question and negotiate with adults. Cultural patterns also influence the way children learn. For example, some cultural settings promote learning through hands-on manipulation of materials, while others focus on visual representation, and still others focus on oral traditions of storytelling or more structured interactions. Whatever the cultural influence on children’s predispositions, learning styles can be embraced as equal, valued, and respected as a child approaches learning