What Exactly Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are a set of skills that combine skills and information we’ve learned in the past to help us accomplish something now. This skill set combines all the motor, sensory, and communication skills you’ve developed and applies them to daily activities and situations.

Why Are Executive Function Skills Important?

executive_function_partsExecutive function skills help us reach our goals. Together, they act as the brain’s control center for processing information, focusing our thinking, monitoring errors, filtering distractions, and more!

Children who do not have well developed executive functions struggle to adjust their behavior and achieve any goal that requires planning, organizing, and sustained participation. These goals could be something large and long-term, like saving up allowance money to buy a toy, or something smaller and more immediate, like being able to pay attention to the teacher’s instructions for an assignment in class.  Sometimes kids struggling with executive function can be labeled as “bad kids” or just having behavioral problems. Many times these kids simply need help developing their executive function skills.

Learning from past experiences in order to complete new tasks will be hard for your child without executive function skills. Developing executive function skills early on will help prepare them for school and for social interactions with peers and family. It will also be an important building block for success in adult life, such as being able to hold a job or manage life at college.

What is Important for Developing Executive Function Skills?

  • A safe, consistent home environment
  • Dependable social relationships
  • Creative, unstructured playtime
  • Development of motor skills, sensory integration, and communication skills

When Do Executive Function Skills Develop?

Many people think of school-aged kids, or even adults, when talking about executive function. But really, executive function skills start developing when we’re babies! Early motor, sensory, and even communication skills are very important to the development of executive functions. Babies should be provided with activities and experiences, as well as consistent care-giving, to ensure that they have the opportunities necessary to achieve their developmental milestones as the first step to being able to develop strong executive functions.

A big part of early executive function development involves routines: remembering the process of your routine, completing all the steps, and being able to move forward if your plan or typical schedule is interrupted.

Have you ever thought about how routines start day one for babies? Although different caregivers may do things slightly differently, we build foundations for young babies through consistent caregiving routines. When babies sleep, eat, experience diaper changes, and take baths, these are all opportunities for established routines to provide foundational sensory, motor, and communication experiences that we build on for executive function development. For example, getting dressed in the morning is a routine that is carried out by caregivers for babies at first. Even if it varies between Mom, Dad, and Grandma helping baby get dressed, this is still establishing a routine. As a child’s motor and cognitive skills develop, the child will start to participate by holding their arm out or helping to get dressed in another way. Eventually, this is a routine they will continue independently. Setting the foundation for a skill like getting dressed in the morning, an after-lunch routine, or brushing their teeth is essential to your child eventually completing these on their own.

Even if your child is physically and cognitively able to complete a task, they may struggle without these consistent early experiences. Once a foundation is built, older kids work to refine and apply these skills to daily life as they were taught, and expand the skills to new situations.

How Can I Help My Young Child Develop Their Executive Function Skills?

how to help your child struggling with executive functionTo help your child develop executive function skills you should model the behaviors you want them to develop, work with them to complete new and challenging tasks, as well as support them in familiar tasks when needed, and then give children opportunities to learn and explore on their own. This won’t always be a perfect process. These skills take time to develop, years in fact! For example, when working on mastering a morning routine, sometimes it may feel like your child is taking a step back or needs more help than usual for a few days. This is okay! Keep working with them by providing a little more support when it’s needed, but backing away once your child appears confident and able to complete the steps of the task. By taking time to help your child develop executive function skills you are providing learning experiences that set the stage for success no matter the activity or environment.

Areas of Executive Function

There are multiple areas of executive function skills. Some skills, such as time management, span multiple categories because the areas all work together for functional actions. The three biggest areas that help build a framework for understanding executive function include working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility.

Signs to Look For

Potential signs of executive function differences in children include:

  • General delays in motor, cognitive, or communication development
  • Significant differences in responses to sensory experiences, e.g. too sensitive or not sensitive enough
  • Becomes easily frustrated and struggles to manage emotions or is not easily calmed as a baby
  • Has rigid routines and dislikes change
  • Struggles to make adjustments after getting used to doing something a certain way
  • Has difficulty completing simple, age-appropriate tasks
  • Difficulty with age-appropriate social interactions
  • Struggles to participate in age appropriate play
  • Needs more help with tasks than other children his or her age

What If My Child is Struggling?

Talk to your healthcare professional if you feel your child is struggling with executive function skills. Find out what behaviors are typical based on your child’s age so you know what to expect and try to narrow down “behavioral problems” to see if working on executive function skills may help. It’s important to remember that executive function skills build on motor, sensory, and communication skills, so also talk to your healthcare professional if you notice delays in those areas.

There are specialists who may be able to help your child with executive function including:

  • Physical Therapists - Physical therapists strive to make every session fun, while working on improving strength, flexibility, range of motion, posture, balance, and movement patterns. If your child has difficulty in any of these areas, it is important to talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the impact physical limitations can have on executive function development, and to see a physical therapist to address these issues.
  • Occupational Therapists - Occupational therapists help children master daily life skills by helping them strengthening the physical, cognitive, and sensory skills required to achieve every day activities. Occupational therapists address underlying skill limitations while providing adaptive strategies to help children perform daily tasks as independently as possible, which in turn helps children further build their skills and confidence.
  • Speech-Language Pathologists - Speech-language pathologists work to give children the tools to communicate effectively. Stress and anxiety can be exacerbated when you are unable to express your feelings. Their aim is to improve a child’s ability to use verbal and non-verbal communication, and engage in meaningful learning and social activities.
  • Developmental and Behavioral Pediatricians - Address developmental delays and disabilities, attention and behavioral issues, regulatory and habit disorders, and anxiety and stress management.