Executive function skills are referred to the combination of sensory, motor, cognitive, and communication skills that provide support to become active and successful adults.
Executive functioning skills include focus, controlling impulses, memory, emotional regulation, and working towards a goal.
From playing, learning, and socializing, these skills are used to conduct daily activities, from a very young age. Overall, these skills help your child accomplish important activities and new achievements.
No one is born with executive function skills but learns them with time. As your kid gets older, these skills become more in demand. They help your child execute and complete more complex tasks.
What is Executive Function?
Whether it’s about planning ahead to meet goals and concentrate on a task despite distractions or following multiple-step directions and displaying self-control, executive function skills underline doing these activities efficiently. Just like an air traffic control system that manages airplanes to land and take off safely, these skills help your brain to control impulses while prioritizing tasks and avoiding distractions.
Human genes have the blueprint for learning executive function skills, but when it comes to developing them, it is experiences and practice that attract the most.
These skills begin to develop when your child first learns to focus or pay attention to any activity. This stage is vital, as it determines your child’s overall development of other foundation skills, and thus, at this stage, you need to build a strong relationship with them. Sometimes, a simple game of peekaboo can build their cognitive and self-control skills as a kid anticipates surprises.
Parents can help their children to develop executive function skills by setting up a framework that not only encourages them to learn but also practice them over time. This can be done by establishing routines and breaking bigger tasks into smaller ones.
Being parents, you can also encourage your child to participate in games and activities that promote role-playing, self-control, imagination, and following instructions. Parents can make use of these activities to support the development of their child’s executive function skills until they can perform complex tasks on their own.
How Executive Functioning Skills Develop By Age
Most occupational therapists and child development experts follow developmental models to develop executive functioning skills in children. Though no one is born with these skills, everyone has the potential to develop executive functioning skills due to their genetic predisposition.
In the first two years of life, children start developing these important skills through environmental learning. As they grow up and start going to school, they become more independent and learn self-care skills.
By now, they know how to manage their time properly so that they get tests, homework, and assignments on time. Gradually they learn the art of paying attention to activities so that they can learn new things and stay organized to find necessary items during the time of emergency.
During their growing phase, children first experience and practice executive functioning skills with activities like social and role-plays. By ages 5-12, children start taking responsibilities at both school and home.
During this phase, parents and caregivers must provide them with opportunities to practice executive functioning skills so that they can prepare themselves for future complexities.
Practicing these skills help your kid develop management, organizational, emotional control, and other behaviors that support their academic, professional, and social development.
By the time your child becomes a teenager or a young adult, their experience and practice of these skills will help them to shape their future.
The important executive functioning skills that your child needs to develop are:
Planning is a skill that enables us to identify and manage future related tasks. The skill involves setting goals, understanding future responsibilities, analyzing the steps to complete the goals, and so on. Planning is considered to be an important executive functioning skill that starts to develop in infancy. When an infant starts paying attention to an object or grabbing and pointing at an object, their planning skill starts developing.
As they grow and start attending school, this skill allows your child to understand complex instructions to meet certain goals. By the time they reach adolescence, they start planning out complex projects independently. By adulthood, they are able to maintain multiple plans to execute different objectives at one time.
Another crucial executive functioning skill that prepares your child for future complex activities is time management. It is a skill that allows your kiddo to understand how to make use of time effectively.
It helps them to understand the importance of time and how does it impact their lives. Good time management skill not only helps them to estimate how long a task might take but also to complete their daily schedules more effectively and with ease.
The time management skill first develops when a child is introduced to the concepts of time including day, months, years, and seasons. When your child starts visiting a school, they develop a greater ability to estimate time as they need to complete their tests, assignments and other tasks within deadlines or time limits.
As they become young adults, this skill allows them to implement tools to adjust their routines and manage time more efficiently.
Task initiation is a skill that helps children to understand how to initiate a task independently. The skills involve independent generation of ideas, problem-solving, and task response capabilities.
Occupational therapists and child development experts consider this skill to be one of the fundamental executive functioning skills. Task initiation develops in a child at a very young age as parents and caregivers provide support and instructions to complete a task.
However, as they grow up and start going to school, they can start and complete a task independently, though with longer durations. By the time they reach adolescence, children can start initiating a task more quickly and learn to complete it even under adverse conditions.
“Organization” is a term that can have different definitions for different people. However, in general, it means keeping your belongings neat and tidy, and thus, considered to be one of the most important executive function skills.
This skill is vital as it creates a sense of control in an individual, and thus results in less frustration while executing a task. With the development of this skill, a person can complete a task more efficiently and quickly.
Hence, they can also engage themselves in other preferred activities. A child begins to develop this skill when they first show their interest in different categories in our environment like shape, size, and color.
When toddlers start understanding different patterns and start sorting out items according to their class, form, and function, they are gradually grasping this skill. As they grow older and start attending primary school, they now can organize their classroom belongings including books, notebooks, and writing equipment.
As young adults, this skill allows your kid to maintain a much more complex organizational system and they learn how to re-organize their schedules, activities, and tasks according to their requirements.
Another essential skill that allows you to identify a problem and generate solutions to fix it. This skill is related to many other executive functioning skills as it involves planning, usage of memory, and attention.
Children and infants start developing this skill through play. The cause and effect of social and role-plays help children to understand how things work.
As your child grows up, their problem-solving skills increase. In their early learning years, children learn turn-taking, decision making, and brainstorming activities to find solutions to problems identified by their parents and teachers.
In adolescence, they no longer take the help of adults to identify a problem. By now, they know how to sort out conflicts and decide solutions to them. However, sometimes they might sell their parent’s or teachers’ feedback and support to get the right solution. As they grow up into young adults, they can find solutions to more complex issues and generate several until they resolve a problem.
One of the important skills needed to perform daily activities is working memory. This executive functioning skill includes your ability to remember an incident and recall necessary information.
Working memory is important for gathering information from the environment and using it to complete a task. Parents and caregivers can help their children practice this skill by encouraging them to follow multi-step directions and solve math problems.
Play cards, active reading, role plays, and multisensory activities can help them with boosting their working and long-term memories.
Emotional control is referred to as a skill that helps humans control tantrums and other problem behaviors. This particular executive functioning skill enables you to check your emotions and helps you to understand your own feelings along with the strategies to manage them.
Though infants do not have control over their emotions and rely on adults for support and comfort, the skill develops with age. In early learning years, children first learn to identify their own and others’ emotions.
However, at this phase, they may not develop control of their emotions. The independence to control emotions increases as the child grows. As teens, they develop the ability to understand more complex emotions like regret, empathy, and grief.
With understanding, they also learn the art of managing their emotions, so that they do not disrupt their daily activities.
Just like controlling your emotions, it’s important to control your impulses to do a task efficiently. This is a skill that involves the ability to have control over our behavior that might harm ourselves or others.
Impulse control develops in children when they first start learning basic safety responses. Toddlers are mostly shy with unknown people and it is one of their primary safety responses.
Toddlers even respond to hot and cold objects and fear running out into the street. However, at this stage, children need constant monitoring and support for greater independence.
During their teen years, children continue some risky behaviors but follow safety rules. As the child turns young adult they can now avoid reckless and harmful behaviors with ease and can make decisions with utmost calmness.
One of the basic skills that can bring a person success and efficiency is attention. Thus, experts consider attentional control to be another important executive functioning skill that allows an individual to pay attention to important tasks until their completion.
This skill develops in children at infancy when they learn to gaze and focus on different objects.
Different games like hide and seek or peek-a-boo can also help your child develop attention. As they grow, they start learning how to concentrate on a task for extended periods.
They can start planning and executing them in the middle of distractions as well. By adulthood, they start to understand the causes of distractions and thus, look for solutions that keep their focus and bypass distractions.
Self-monitoring is yet another skill that is important for carrying out daily activities. It is the ability to examine your own behavior and make changes according to situations and activities.
It is a complex executive functioning skill and requires experience and practice for proper development. Self-monitoring skills begin to develop at a very young age when your kiddo starts imitating.
As a child, an individual tries to identify how their behavior is similar or different from others, and they adopt it to match with the surroundings and the society. In school, children use this skill with the help of activities like checklists, journaling, reflection, and so on.
As they grow into young adults, they gain the ability to monitor their own performance, compare with others, check their mistakes and work harder to achieve their goals.
Executive Functioning Skills You Can Expect to See By Age
Executive functioning skills typically start developing between the ages of 3 years and 5 years. These skills spike up as your child enters adolescence or early adulthood.
As these skills are not inborn, they take a long time and a lot of practice to get developed. However, as your child’s executive functioning skills start to develop, you must support them and allow them to manage more aspects of their environment for a better future.
Executive functioning skills help your child to understand the world around them better and prepare them to interact more appropriately with it. As they grow older, these skills will help them to socialize with others, remember their homework, prioritize their tasks, and keep their emotions under control.
Here are the executive functioning skills that you can expect to see as your child grows up:
- Attract caregiver’s attention when not feeling well
- Look for hidden toys and objects
- Focus on objects and start grabbing them
- Begin matching skills
- Play with cause and effect toys
- Plays hide and seek and peek-a-boo (Life Skills Advocate, 2020).
- Follow simple instructions
- Cleans up toys with adult help
- Names simple emotions
- Responds to adult reminders to pay attention
- Can start and complete tasks that take up to 10 minutes (Life Skills Advocate, 2020).
- Follows a visual schedule
- Starts identify solutions to problems
- Can follow simple checklists
- Plays in team sports
- Follows most safety rules
- Checks own work for simple mistakes (Life Skills Advocate, 2020).
- Start cooking a meal
- Efficiently manage homework and finish them on time
- Plans ahead for desired goals (e.g. save money to buy something)
- Can estimate how long it takes to complete tasks and adjust speed accordingly (Life Skills Advocate, 2020).
Though building executive functioning skills might seem like an overwhelming task, it doesn’t need to be. As with all skills, it requires ongoing practice. Once you start recognizing the skills your child needs to develop, you may be surprised to see how easy it is to include them in your child’s life through daily activities.
Executive Function Skills By Age: What To Look For | Life Skills Advocate. (2021). Retrieved 24 December 2021, from https://lifeskillsadvocate.com/blog/executive-function-skills-by-age/#Executive-Functioning-Skills-By-Age
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