What Executive Function is and Why Parents Should Pay Attention to It

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

ParentingUpdated March 20, 2023

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist


Executive function has become a buzzword among early childhood educators and childcare providers. You may have heard it or read about it. And you may be wondering exactly what it means, 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. Still, 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.1,2

Working Memory

Working memory refers to a child’s ability to remember important information and use it functionally. An example of working memory is teaching your child the sequence and technique for tying their shoe. Several days later, they can 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. Having your child explain back to you how to do something helps them learn the skill. They have to think through the sequence and procedure, which helps 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. With their eyes closed, remove one item and have them try to figure out what is missing. This is a great way to pass the time and build working memory.
  3. Play card games. Go Fish and Old Maid are great for teaching working memory because children remember the game rules and process the cards, sequence, 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.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility, also called flexible thinking, refers to thinking about things in different ways. This incorporates some higher-level logic skills. A child might use cognitive flexibility to solve a problem or math problems or find relationships between different concepts. This skill is important for executive function because it helps children learn daily. We might not think about it as “cognitive flexibility,” but we do it all day long. For example, as we plan 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 “C” has two sounds while “F” only has one. Using 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 like, “What are three different uses for this fork?” Or “If our dog could talk, what would he say 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 (a stick becomes a magic wand).

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. Show self-control when something frustrating happens to you, 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 know that it means they’re turning into a big girl/boy.

4. Allow playdates. Playdates allow children to practice self-control around the unpredictability of other children. Talk to your child about sharing and turn-taking.

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

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PMC4084861/
2. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/

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