What is Executive Function and Why Should Parents be Paying Attention to It?

Boy playing with building Blocks.

What is Executive Function and Why Should Parents be Paying Attention to It?

Executive function has become a buzz word among early child educators and child care providers. You may have heard it or read about it. And you may be wondering exactly what it means and why it is important to know this word and how it applies to your child.

What is Executive Function?

The term executive function is subject to some interpretation, but most professionals working in early childhood define executive function as three specific skills that help children organize and manage their thoughts and actions. These three areas consist of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these skills.

Working Memory

Working memory refers to a child’s ability to remember important information and use it in a functional way. An example of working memory is when you teach your child the sequence and technique for tying their shoe. Several days later, they are able to remember the steps and the techniques necessary to tie their shoes for themselves.

How to support working memory in young children:

  1. Ask your child to teach you. By having your child explain back to you how to do something, it helps them to learn the skill. They have to think through the sequence and procedure and this helps to cement working memory skills.
  2. Play memory. Games that require visual memory are great for working memory skills. While waiting for food in a restaurant, put several items in the center of the table, then have your child close their eyes, then remove one item and have them try to figure out what is missing. This is a great way to pass time and build working memory.
  3. Play card games. Go Fish and Old Maid are great for teaching working memory because children are remembering the rules of the game and also processing the cards, sequence, and numbers and symbols.
  4. Use all the senses. By engaging all of the senses, you are helping your child store new information for new learning.
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Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility, also called flexible thinking, refers to the ability to think about things in different ways. This incorporates some higher-level logic skills. A child might use cognitive flexibility in solving a problem or math problems or finding relationships between different concepts. This is a really important skill for executive function because it helps children learn every day. We might not think about it as “cognitive flexibility” but we do it all day long. As we plan out our day, solve simple problems, and shift our attention from one demand to another. An example of cognitive flexibility is when a child learns his letter sounds and understands that the letter “C” has two sounds, while the letter “F” only has one. The ability to use flexible thinking allows children to learn and assimilate new information.

Here are some tips to help support cognitive flexibility in young children:

  1. Model flexibility. Routines are really important and good for children to provide predictability and structure, but it is also important for children to be able to “go with the flow.” When something happens that is out of the routine, talk your child through it and help them see that you are flexible and it is okay. For example, “It is starting to rain, so we can’t go to the park after all, but we can go to the library today and we can try again to go to the park tomorrow.”
  2. Be spontaneous. Pull the car over on the way home to allow your children to run around on a new playground for 15 minutes, offer little surprises that break up the routine, such as “Tonight we are going to have a carpet picnic in the living room instead of eating dinner at the table.”
  3. Discuss new possibilities. Challenge your child’s creativity by asking questions, such as “What are three different uses for this fork?” Or “If our dog could talk, what would he be saying right now?”
  4. Engage in pretend play. Play house or have a tea party, encouraging your child’s imagination and creativity.
  5. Play outdoors. The outdoors has a way of changing things up and keeping play new and engaging. Talk about the changing weather, seasons, and light. Find things in nature and come up with alternate uses for them (a stick becomes a magic wand).
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Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control is simply self-control. It is often the most challenging and important part of executive function. Inhibitory control is the child’s ability to resist temptations, ignore distractions and not act impulsively. This skill grows as the child matures. This skill helps children listen in class, follow directions and not yell out of turn. This is also a very important skill to support new learning.

Here are some ways you can help support inhibitory control in young children:

  1. Encourage children to stay on task. If your child has a short attention span, try to set a timer and encourage them to stick with an activity for longer periods of time each day. Try to keep activities novel and engaging.
  2. Model self-control. When something frustrating happens to you, show self-control, then discuss it with your child. “I didn’t want to drop this whole bag of groceries, but it happened, so let’s pick up the apples together and count each one.”
  3. Praise your child for using self-control. When you see your child using self-control point it out and tell them how proud you are. Acknowledge that it is difficult and it means that they are turning into a big girl/boy.
  4. Allow playdates. Playdates allow children to practice self-control around the unpredictability of other children. Talk your child through sharing and turn taking.

When your child has more advanced executive function, higher level skills can be learned and applied and new learning can occur. It is never too early to start teaching executive function skills!

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About the Author /

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist and has been working in pediatrics for 20 years. Ketchum works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UPMC Pinnacle Hospital and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. Ketchum is also the owner/operator of Aimee’s Babies LLC, a child development company.

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Here are some tips to combat isolation:⁠
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1️⃣ Get outside when possible.⁠
2️⃣ Video chat with friends/family.⁠
3️⃣ Join a virtual group.⁠
4️⃣ Invite someone to come over.⁠
5️⃣ Find a local mom's group.⁠
6️⃣ Listen to the radio or a podcast (it's interesting how this can make us feel connected with others)⁠
7️⃣ Run an errand--even grabbing a coffee via drive-thru can feel good.⁠
8️⃣ Get to know your neighbors.⁠
What would you add to the list?⁠
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