What are Executive Function Skills?

Have you ever heard of executive function skills? They are an incredibly important set of skills that we use every single day!

Executive function skills combine motor, sensory, communication, and cognitive skills we’ve developed. Beginning at a very young age, we apply this combination of skills to daily activities and situations, such as playing, learning and socializing. Overall, they help us accomplish important things and reach new achievements.

Ways we commonly use of our executive functions skills include:

  • During play. While playing peek-a-boo, babies know where an object is even if it can’t be seen. Children take turns and share with peers. They learn to be okay with losing. They follow directions from adults.
  • While socializing. Baby learns to focus and pay attention to people as they talk. They at first imitate others, then learn how to use gestures and expressions during communication. Children learn to talk through issues with their friends and find a solution. As they get older, they organize gatherings with their friends and follow-through with those plans.
  • At school. We manage our time properly in order to get assignments and tests done on time. We pay attention to learn new things. We keep handouts organized by subject so we can easily find the materials we need.


Executive Function Basics

When do we begin developing executive function skills?

Executive function skills begin developing when we are babies! We first start to use these skills at a very young age, possibly before our first birthday. Executive function skills become increasingly important in social and school settings, and continue to develop and change throughout our lives due to learning and life experiences.

Why do we need executive function skills?

Executive function is about functional skills. These are skills that help us with daily routines, school work, friendships, working, playing, etc. With executive function, we take what we know and find practical and important ways to use those skills.

For example, as a young child we discover how a light switch works. Then, we use executive function when we apply that to a new situation or environment, such as knowing how to use a light switch in a different house, or how to figure out different types of switches.

What are some of the different areas of executive function skills?

There are many areas of executive function skills. Three of them are:

  • Working memory: This type of memory helps us remember and apply information to everyday activities, to put our memories to “work”. An example of working memory would be remembering the rules of a game while playing that game.
  • Inhibitory control: The ability to think about what to do before doing it, with control over our reaction. For example, inhibitory control is at work when we raise our hand and wait to be called on before giving an answer.
  • Mental flexibility: Our 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.

What do executive function skills help with?

  • Reading and applying what you learn
  • Getting to work or school on time
  • Completing a list of chores
  • Playing with friends and siblings
  • Cleaning your room
  • Cooking
  • Working with a group
  • Finishing a project
  • Asking for help when you need it
  • Checking over your homework before turning it in
  • Getting along with people even if you are upset

How can parents help develop and improve executive function skills?

  • Have predictable routines from a young ages
  • Provide baby with age-appropriate toys and household items to play with and explore
  • As a baby, use imitation games such as clapping hands to build memory skills and teach baby how to copy you
  • As they grow older, continue to model the behavior that you would like to see in your children
  • Bring children along on errands
  • Let them try new things and complete tasks to help build confidence
  • Acknowledge good behavior
  • Talk through steps of an activity
  • Provide opportunities for free, creative play and problem solving


Executive Function in Action

If you’re looking to exercise or improve your child’s executive function, here are some great ways to apply these skills to everyday tasks.

Routines help children of all ages develop their executive function skills

Learn more about the value of routines, and how an evening routine can help you and your family improve executive functioning.

Learn More

Routines are important at every age, and in key areas of development. They help children build confidence and know how to plan their day.

For your infant, learn how to make Tummy Time a part of your daily routine

Learn more about integrating communication into routines with your toddler

How Do I Know If My Child is Struggling with Executive Function?

Potential signs and risk factors of executive function issues 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

If you feel your child is struggling, talk to your healthcare professional. It’s important to remember executive function skills use a combination of motor, sensory, and communication skills, so talk to your healthcare professional if you notice delays in any of those areas.

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

  • 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, 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: Help children master daily life skills by helping them strengthen 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: 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.