Every day, air traffic controllers are responsible for guiding hundreds of planes to safely and successfully take off from and land at airports. At any moment, they’re juggling tons of responsibilities that require skills like attention and organization, even in less-than-ideal weather conditions. Air traffic controllers at the airport are what executive functioning skills are to the body.
Executive functioning is responsible for managing many of the skills you need to succeed for planning ahead and meeting goals. And while it’s essential to have and continuously work on developing these skills even in adulthood, this development should begin during early childhood.
In this article, we’ll discuss executive functioning skills—what they are, why they’re important, key milestones, and how you can teach them to young children.
What are executive functioning skills?
Executive function is a general term for a set of cognitive processes and mental skills you use to control and manage abilities and behaviors. These skills depend on three types of brain functions:
- Working memory: forming and storing memories, and processing information
- Mental flexibility: planning, multitasking, and problem-solving
- Self-control: controlling impulses and voluntary movement
At the core of working memory is forming and storing memories. It allows you to hold and process information like sights, sounds, and smells. For example, a young child uses their working memory to remember their best friend’s name. It also allows them to recall the alphabet, numbers, colors, and shapes.
Mental (or cognitive) flexibility is paying attention and switching between different mental tasks. It also means being able to think about multiple things simultaneously. A child uses mental flexibility to transition between activities like building blocks to putting the blocks away. This skill could also look like a child multitasking while coloring and watching a movie.
In executive function, self-control is both attentional and inhibitory. Attentional control allows you to focus your attention on something specific despite outside distractions. If you’re trying to speak to a young child while Encanto is playing in the background, attentional control will help them focus on you instead of the movie. Inhibitory control stops impulses and allows you to display more appropriate behavior. Instead of snatching a toy away from a friend, inhibitory control would drive the child to ask for the toy.
Ten important executive functions that begin developing in early childhood are:
- Task initiation
- Mental flexibility
- Working memory
- Time management
Planning is the ability to consider all tasks that are required to reach a goal. Prioritization involves making decisions regarding what’s important versus what isn’t important. Planning and prioritization help you complete tasks as efficiently as possible. It could look like making visual or verbal plans. For example, a young child preparing for snack time would use these skills when planning to put away their toys, wash their hands, and then get their snack. This skill allows children to figure out where to start and how to finish a task.
Organization is the ability to create and maintain systems for keeping track of information or materials. With adult support or reminders, young children can complete tasks like putting away their toys or cleaning up the play area.
Many people find it difficult to just “get started” on a task. Task initiation is the ability to begin a project efficiently and on time without procrastination. If you say that playtime is over, a skill like task initiation would lead a young child to dive right into putting their toys away instead of waiting for multiple reminders.
Mental flexibility gives you the skill to switch between different concepts while also being able to think about multiple concepts at once. In young children, it might look like engaging in new activities or adjusting to changes in plans or routines.
Attention, or sustained attention, allows you to focus on an activity or task for some time. This could be demonstrated by either focusing or listening. This skill could present itself as a preschooler listening as you read a short book during story time.
Self-control allows you to control impulses and actions. Additionally, this extends to emotional control that presents itself during early childhood. Emotional control is managing emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior. The skills that develop from this are the ability to calm oneself and cope with big emotions. Instead of having a tantrum, young children can learn to control and manage their emotions.
Metacognition is being aware of your own learning, including what you know and don’t know. It appears as self-awareness and self-reflection. In young children, this might look like a brief conversation about what’s happening in the present moment. Metacognition also displays itself when a child can briefly describe their emotional state.
Working memory is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It involves drawing on past learning or experiences and applying them to a current or future situation. An example is when a young child can remember an instruction you recently gave them.
Time management is a skill that most adults struggle with well into adulthood. It’s the capacity to use time efficiently to accomplish tasks. It means estimating how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. Even young children can demonstrate time management skills by finishing small chores within a time limit or completing a task more quickly when prompted.
Perseverance is the ability to stick to a task without giving up, even if the task is challenging. A skill that stems from perseverance is working through difficult activities. With this skill, your children might ask for help or try to solve a problem independently.
Executive functioning skills are critical to success, and their importance begins in early childhood.
Why is executive function important?
Executive functions are particularly important because they’re critical to how a person functions in their daily life.
On a typical day people:
- Analyze information
- Make plans
- Manage their behavior
- Manage their time
- Pay attention
- Regulate their emotions
- Remember details
- Stay organized
These skills are needed for many different areas of life, whether it’s school, work, or relationships.
Conditions like ADHD and dementia can cause problems with executive function. On a smaller scale, if the skills associated with executive function were never introduced or developed, it could also lead to a few deficits. Instead of exhibiting mental flexibility and perseverance, one might experience anxiety when their routines are disrupted. Executive function difficulties might also lead to losing items, chronic lateness, difficulty multitasking, and struggles with controlling impulsive behaviors.
Executive functioning skills are like a muscle, and you can strengthen them over time. To help young children transition into flexible, organized, successful adults, it’s necessary to begin teaching executive function as early as possible.
Executive function skills by age
People aren’t born with executive functioning skills; they develop as the brain grows. At every stage, young children can develop different, new skills. Every child is different, so some of your children may reach certain milestones at different times; however, using age is a good start to determine where a child’s developmental abilities might be at a given moment.
0 to 6-months-old
At this stage in an infant's life, many of their milestones are physical. They’re starting to sit without support. While they won’t be ready to walk, they can push down on their legs when their feet are on a hard surface.
While it’s still too early for infants at this age to start developing executive functioning skills, they’re still laying the groundwork to build upon. During this time, they can start to differentiate between familiar faces and strangers. To communicate, they’ll start making sounds that show positive or negative emotions.
Not only is your child growing physically, but so is their brain. As their brain development increases, so does their ability to learn new executive functioning skills.
6 to 18-months-old
Between six and 18 months, babies develop attention, working memory, and emotional control. At this time, infants can show their attention as they begin to track objects with their eyes. Working memory appears as recognizing family members or demonstrating a preference for particular toys. Additionally, emotional control begins emerging at this stage where you might experience a crying baby settling down after being comforted by a caregiver. The development of these skills is highly dependent on supportive, responsive interactions between children and adults.
To engage with children at this age, playing peekaboo can teach babies attention and routine. The game allows them to pay attention to your face while their memory helps them anticipate what’s coming next. The feeding process is another daily activity that allows babies to use their working memory as they develop a routine. By 12 months, babies should anticipate their food and turn their heads toward it or open their mouths in response.
Language development also begins during the latter part for this age group. Simply talking to infants is an effective tool for building attention, working memory, and self-control.
18 to 36-month-olds
As toddlers develop, they build off the skills they learned in infancy and develop more. Between 18 and 36 months, children begin developing organization, task initiation, self-control, and metacognition skills. At this age, appropriate tasks for children could be putting their toys away or picking out a book for storytime. Toddlers also begin developing self-control and might stop themselves from throwing a tantrum. This trickles into metacognition, where children can briefly describe their emotional state.
Imitation games, like Follow the Leader, are great tools to test working memory, attention, and self-control. Another game that helps strengthen self-control is Freeze Dance. In this activity, everyone dances as the music plays. When the music stops, each player has to freeze immediately. It’s necessary to note that at this stage, frequent reminders are a must. Don’t be surprised if you have a few toddlers bouncing around when the song turns off.
As toddlers develop their language skills, continue to emphasize conversations and storytelling. You might tell stories about shared events, talk about feelings, or watch and narrate their play. Going over shared events can strengthen working memory, while talking about their emotions helps with metacognition development. As your toddlers grow, narrating their play can lead to a follow-up question like, “What will you do next?” allowing a child to reflect and preparing them for other skills like planning and prioritization.
3 to 5 years old
Between three and five years old, children develop quickly. They’re building on the skills they’ve started learning and continue adding new ones into the mix. During this time, children can begin developing skills for planning and prioritization, time management, and perseverance. When prompted for bedtime, a child at this age could consciously decide to put their toys away before changing into their pajamas, demonstrating planning and prioritization. If directed to move more quickly in a task, a developing skill for time management would allow a child to adapt to this. And lastly, at this age, children become increasingly independent. With simple routines, such as brushing their teeth or hair, you’ll find that they become more interested in accomplishing the task themselves.
Imaginary play is a large component during this developmental stage for three to five-year-olds. To support their creativity, use books, videos, and experiences—like a trip to the zoo—to enrich their minds. Give them props and toys for play. Let them make their own. This can enhance their skills for mental flexibility and self-control.
As you work to develop and strengthen their skills, you can also encourage storytelling, direct attention control through quieter activities, and gradually introduce more challenging tasks like matching and sorting.
How to teach executive functioning skills
There is no one-size-fits-all method to teaching. The same idea applies to each of the executive functioning skills. You wouldn’t teach time management the same way you would self-control. Even so, you can use five general steps to teach executive functioning skills to young learners.
Executive functioning skills can be a confusing concept for young children. Start by describing the skill, and assign a name that makes sense to them. While understanding the phrase “time management” could be a little difficult, replace it with “being on time.” As you explain each skill to them, emphasize why it’s important.
After you explain a skill, demonstrate what it looks like and talk them through the process. For example, use your desk to demonstrate the executive functioning skill of organization. Show your children the difference between what an organized and disorganized desk might look like. Describe how important this skill is to you. If your desk is disorganized, it would be much harder to find what you’re looking for.
Encourage your children to practice the skills they’re learning. Both structured and unstructured experiences are necessary to master a skill. You can plan lessons that help your children practice a skill like self-control. However, self-control can be easy to forget during a spontaneous moment. Regardless of how the child acts, turn the situation into a teachable moment where you focus on what they did right and gently correct any mistakes or accidents.
Reinforcement is a great way to continue teaching and developing a skill in a young child, making them more likely to use it in the future. Positively describe the skill you’ve seen the child use. Did they show a skill for task initiation by putting their toys away immediately after being prompted? Highlight and celebrate these moments to reinforce the importance of the skill.
Allow your children time to reflect on the positive outcomes of using their skills. Let’s say that before introducing your children to time management, they spent too much time cleaning up their areas which consistently delayed playtime. In teaching them the skill, you announce how long they have to clean up and prompt them to move faster when they start slowing down. To demonstrate the importance, you announce how much time is left for playtime and connect it to their timeliness in cleaning up. As you guide them to reflect on the positive outcome of being on time, you can help them make the connection that they get more time to play.
While these five steps are a great foundation for teaching executive function, you might appreciate more focused tips to help you work through each of the ten skills.
To teach:Planning and prioritization:
Create checklists for tasks
Walk your children through writing out the daily schedule
Provide opportunities to practice planning simple tasks: making the bed, building a snowman, etc.
Use a calendar in the classroom to keep track of important dates
Model putting materials and toys back after using them
Set aside time to guide them through re-organizing the classroom
Practice and model self-talk to get started
Use a countdown to signify the start of work
Separate work into smaller tasks
Challenge your children to play a game or complete a task differently
Introduce surprises throughout the day
Talk your children through multiple ways to solve a problem
- Practice focusing on a task for some time
- Incorporate regular brain breaks for active play to boost attention
- Remove visual distractions
- Teach and practice coping strategies
- Play games that practice self-control like “Red light, green light”
- Help children identify distractions (toys, books, etc.) that lead to temptation
- Give children the opportunity to identify what they don’t understand
- Teach children about a growth mindset and how they can learn and grow
- Prompt your children through self-reflection
- Try games that use visual memory
- Break information into smaller pieces
- Incorporate lessons where your children teach you information they learned
Use a visual timer during lessons
Regularly give out time checks during activities
Write or draw out a daily schedule for children to follow throughout the day
Create a list of strategies for when an assignment is challenging
Teach positive self-talk
One thing to note is that many of the ideas listed above can apply to teaching multiple skills. Planning and prioritization, organization, and time management are three skills that easily overlap. The same goes for attention and self-control. Executive functioning skills are a cycle of abilities your children will continue to learn, develop, and experience as they grow.
Your children control the future
As your children grow, they slowly learn to navigate life and all its distractions. The skills they learn now will eventually allow them to become well-adjusted adults capable of juggling multiple commitments and responsibilities. The executive functioning skills you teach them now will lay the foundation for their future success in school, work, and relationships.