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Executive Functions Skills in Children: All You Need To Know


Executive functions form the basis of a child’s cognitive development. They include cognitive procedures, cognitive flexibility, attention control, working memory and cognitive inhibition. 

The two terms, ‘executive’ and ‘function’ depicts two essential words. The word executive originates from the Latin word, ‘executivus’ which means to carry out or to undertake. Likewise, function is a word that has its derivation from the Latin word, ‘fungi’, which denotes performance.

Therefore, the phrase ‘executive functions’ connotes a collection of critical psychological abilities that regulate the planning and implementation of tasks. They are in charge of the cognitive procedures of every individual. The ability to control emotions, make decisions, and manage behaviors are all characteristics of executive functions. 

However, this article expatiates how parents can help develop and improve a child’s executive functions skills. 

Table of Contents

What are Executive Functions?

Executive functions label the neurological methods linking mental control and self-regulation. That is, it panels and normalizes cerebral and social behaviors like;

  • Impulses
  • Paying attention
  • Remembering information
  • Planning and organizing time
  • Organizing materials, and
  • Responding fittingly to communal and demanding circumstances.

Professionals believe the executive function is structured by the frontal lobe of the brain – the prefrontal cortex. Typically, humans are born with brains that are not fully developed, hence, children are not born with these skills, but they have the potential to develop them.

Growth-promoting surroundings make available “scaffolding” that help children practise necessary skills before they must perform them alone. Moreover, adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by;

  • Establishing routines
  • Modelling social behavior, and
  • Creating and maintaining supportive relationships.

Furthermore, children need to exercise their emerging skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection including;

  • Coaching them to manage pressure,
  • Involving them vital exercises,
  • Providing them with opportunities for directing their actions with decreasing adult supervision.

       Factors that Cause Executive Function Deficit

Executive functions are one of the major features to take cognizance of while children are growing. Research shows that being intelligent or having a high or low intelligence quotient has little or nothing to do with executive function shortfalls. 

Although the reasons for executive functions disorders have not yet been discovered, nonetheless related causes include;

Genetic Factor

According to research;

“Executive functions are unified but can as well be unglued. They are connected because they are impacted by an extremely transmissible corporate feature that transcends universal intellect and perceptual promptness. In contrast, they can be separated due to supplementary genetic effects exclusive to certain executive functions.”

In essence, executive functions deficit can be genetic.

They are majorly for processing our thoughts, conceptualizing, deliberating, among others. However, a child may do these things similarly to the way his parent does. In effect, a child can inherit good or bad habits from his parents. 

Prefrontal Cortex

Studies have proven that the part of the brain called the ‘prefrontal cortex’ majorly regulate human executive functions. Therefore, anything that affects the prefrontal cortex – say wounds or sicknesses, can result in executive function deficit. 


If the brain does not make use of a chemical called ‘norepinephrine’ efficiently, it can cause executive dysfunction in humans. This is because it is one of the major chemicals in the brain that regulates the ability to stay focused.

Also, it transmits information to the prefrontal cortex by moving around the nerve cells. Nevertheless, studies show that the role of this chemical (norepinephrine) can be hindered by the nerve cells present in the prefrontal cortex. The implication, therefore, is that a child may have issues with concentration.

  Different Areas of Executive Function Skills

There are many areas of executive function skills and some of them include;

Working memory:

This type of memory helps a child to remember and apply information to every day activities by putting his memories to “work”. A case of working memory would be recalling the guidelines of a game while playing it.


Self-control is the ability to think about what to do before doing it. Secondly, it is the ability to have personal control or guidance over an action or reaction.  

For example, self-control is at work when a child raises his hand and wait to be called on before answering a question in a class. In addition, it is the aptitude to grasp opinions and instincts so as to resist lures, interruptions, and, immoral conducts.

Mental Flexibility:

The ability to switch efficiently between multiple subjects. This is a key skill set to participate in learning, play, and social environments that require problem-solving, working with others, or trying new things. 

For example, mental flexibility is at work when a child switches from recess to the classroom, and she’s able to appropriately function in both environments. (The capability to adjust mechanisms and adapt to changing demands, urgencies, and viewpoints.)

How Parents Can Help Develop and Improve Executive Functions Skills

Children learning games. Executive functions
Use games to build memory skills for your children

Modelling is one of the ways a child can learn good behavior. A child models your behavior when he learns and imitates what you do. 

Expectable procedures from a young age offer an infant with age-appropriate toys and domestic items to play with and study. As a parent, the following are some of the ways to help your child learn through modelling;

  • Use imitation games such as clapping hands to build memory skills for your baby.
  • As they grow older, keep on modelling the etiquette that you would want to see in your children.
  • Also, take your children along on errands and let them try new things.  

Ensure they complete tasks to help build their confidence. Acknowledge good behavior, talk through the steps of an activity. Provide opportunities for them through creative play and problem solving 


If kids have trouble remembering needed school supplies and homework, set them up for success by creating an at-home workstation. Consider the following;

  • A dry erase board for writing daily schedules.
  • Refills of school supplies like extra paper.
  • Rulers, erasers, and pencils, and, 
  • The child should take directory cards for penning down day to day cues to school.

In addition, make sure your child pack his backpacks each night with new supplies and any work that is due. Assist him in writing cues for the subsequent day on a clear note and put them in his bag as well. 

In effect, planning ahead will reinforce executive functions skills that may not come naturally to your child.


Schedule a time for a task to help your child avoid the stress of waiting until the last minute to complete assignments or responsibilities. Whether it’s assignments, chores, or other tasks, give him a programmed amount of time that he must work on a task. 

Besides, if your child is overwhelmed by large tasks or assignments, break them down into several steps with a completion date and time for each step. Make sure you pen these prospects down on a piece of paper so your child can check off each minor chore as it is finalized.

Furthermore, easing the anxiety of large projects and/or tasks can help your child avoid procrastination. Therefore, you should set goals and avoid over-scheduling. Children who lack executive function abilities may battle to make selections and arrange their time. 

In addition, help your child choose goals for each semester and identify potential stumbling blocks to achieving those goals. Organize boundaries for supplementary undertakings and social occasions so children don’t become crushed with too many happenings. 

Likewise, for those times when there are too many tasks and not enough hours in the day, help your child decide which tasks or responsibilities must take priority and which are not necessities. Learning when to say NO can be just as important as learning initiative and perseverance.


Hiding sports are a great means to test working memory. For that reason, you can hide a toy under a cloth and encourage the infant to look for it. Once the child can find the toy quickly, hide it, show the child that you have moved it, and encourage the child to find it. Make more moves to increase the challenge. As the kid recollects what was there and emotionally follows the step, he or she implements working memory.


Merely chatting with a baby is a delightful technique to shape attention, working memory, and self-control. As infants get older, pointing out and talking about interesting objects or events can help them learn to focus their attention on something the adult has identified. 

Hence, engage them in conversation to trigger responses. As babies learn languages, whatever you say can develop their ability of mapping words to objects and actions.


As a parent, you should reward your child for every positive response elicited as this will encourage him to keep up with the act. Reinforcement comes in different forms such as praises, taking them out to have fun, getting them their favorite toys etc.


As stated earlier, children with learning incapacities frequently struggle with executive function abilities. In effect, such can stop them from effectively recalling germane information and tactically scheduling, shaping, and concluding tasks.

The essential aids linked to executive function encompass aptitude in adjustable thinking, preparation, self-monitoring, self-discipline, working memory, time management, and arrangement. These capabilities are vital to a kid’s growth and learning facility, and nevertheless, as progress commences in early childhood, these skills continue to develop properly into later life.