Executive functioning skills ensure a person can learn to plan, display self-control, follow directions, and maintain focus. We’re not born with these skills, but we can all learn how to develop and improve them. Children especially can benefit from learning executive functioning skills early to set themselves up for long-term success. But it’s essential to understand executive functioning skills and how to develop them.1
What are Executive Functioning Skills?
Executive functioning skills are used for planning and meeting goals, displaying self-control, following directions, and staying focused despite distractions. This may feel like a tall order for a child or something more important as they approach adulthood; executive functioning skills come into play as young as toddlerhood. They are skills that children need to begin practicing at a young age.1,3
When Do Children Begin Developing Executive Functioning Skills?
Focusing on harnessing and cultivating executive functioning skills in young children is especially important because from birth through age 5. Our brains are particularly malleable, and we learn many skills through exposure and experience during this time. Executive functioning skills can develop and be taught at an early age. Like any skill, children should practice these skills and update them as they grow and the demands that school and life place on them increase. In turn, having strong executive functioning skills will help set them up for success in many aspects of their lives.1,3
How To Nurture Executive Functioning Skills
While there are many aspects of executive functioning, below are just some skills involved in executive functioning and how to nurture them in your child.
1. Self-Control and Emotional Regulation
One key aspect of executive functioning is managing frustration and staying calm in challenging situations to avoid impulsive behavior. One way you can begin to work on this with your child is to label emotions, especially those your child experiences in a heightened state. This allows them to identify how they are feeling. You can also start practicing calming strategies. Some great calming strategies for young children include deep breaths, counting to 10, and taking a break.1,4
Being able to sort and track information and materials is essential for executive functioning. A simple way to practice this is to help your child organize their play space or bedroom. This allows them to take part in organizing their possessions and increases ownership when it comes to your child putting things back where they belong and keeping their space organized.5
Planning how they will carry out a task goes along with organization. When it comes to preschool or young school-age kids, I like to give them the task of getting themselves ready to head out the door in the morning to go to school. This means getting their water bottle and lunch box, packing their backpack, and taking their backpack to the front door as they put on their shoes. The cognitive and motor planning that effectively sequences these steps is great for your child’s brain growth.5
Another way to work on your child’s ability to plan is to give them a chore chart – especially for elementary-aged children.
Giving them a simple list of chores (ones they already know how to do) helps them figure out when they can and should complete each task in their day. First, as their caregiver, you may need to help them with this process. But eventually, you can fade yourself out, and your child can practice this independently. As they grow older, the ability to plan can help with schoolwork, extracurriculars, etc.1,5
4. Maintaining Attention to Tasks Despite Distractions
Preschool is an excellent opportunity for young children to practice this executive functioning skill. Think of circle time – a child must pay attention to an adult-directed activity while also filtering the distractions created by the kids and environment around them. If your child isn’t in preschool, take them to a class at your local rec center or story time at the library to practice this. For older kids, this is a skill they can work on throughout the day at school.5
5. Following Multi-Step Directions
You can practice this executive functioning skill throughout the day with your child. Generally, children carry out multi-step directions as part of a daily routine. But you can also work on non-routine multi-step directions. This ensures your child listens and attends to what you are saying rather than going on autopilot, as they often do with routine directions. You can even weave multi-step directions into play. For example, when playing with your child, ask them, “Can you hand me the red marker and the blue scissors” or “Go get the bus and the car garage and bring them to the living room.”
Children often thrive on routine, but they must also understand how to handle unexpected or expected changes because they will encounter many throughout their lifetime. To practice this with your child, purposely switch up your routine and give your kiddo a heads up about it (no need to blindside them). For example, instead of bathing and teeth-brushing in the evening, do teeth-brushing and then a bath. See how your child handles changes.
While executive functioning sounds like a daunting concept, when broken down, it’s a set of skills that make up the planning, monitoring, and execution of tasks. While tasks should be age-appropriate, practicing executive functioning skills should happen throughout one’s life – and it’s best to start young.