Executive function and why it matters

Published on Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Article hero image

'Executive function' might sound like something a business leader does, but this phrase actually refers to a set of skills that are valuable for children, teens, and adults.

Once learnt and practised, these skills will yield lifelong benefits, so let's look at executive function in more detail and see how you can promote this thinking to help your child succeed.

What is executive function?

Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child describes executive function skills as, 'The mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully.'

They liken executive function to an air traffic control system at an airport, because just as that system helps planes land and take-off on numerous runways, executive function skills help our brain set and achieve goals, prioritise tasks, deal with distractions and exhibit self-control.

To do this, executive function skills depend on three types of coordinated brain function:

  1. Working memory, which is our ability to remember and use specific pieces of information over short lengths of time
  2. Mental flexibility, which helps us hold or move our attention in response to different demands, perspectives or rules
  3. Self-control, which allows us to set priorities, think before we act and resist temptation

All this brainpower enables us to balance work, life, and everything in adulthood, but executive function isn't just for grown-ups. Children are born with executive functioning potential and these skills can be developed over time.

What are the benefits of executive functioning?

Executive function skills play a key role in how we operate as individuals and successful members of society. They are seen as 'crucial' to learning and development, and Bright Horizons says, 'Researchers have found that executive function skills are stronger predictors than IQ of success in school, the workforce, and later in life.'

According to Harvard, executive functioning enables children and teens to be 'good students, classroom citizens and friends,' and once a person reaches adulthood, these skills help them juggle important commitments, such as parenting, employment and continuing education.

Harvard adds that, 'Strong executive function helps people stick to healthy habits and reduce stress,' and overall, these skills enable us function as efficient, cognisant, and participatory human beings.

How can your child learn executive function skills?

The good news is that although no one is born with this skill set, our genes do contain a 'blueprint' for learning executive function. Almost everyone can develop these skills through experience and practice; and right from birth, you can help your child grasp, and slowly develop, this way of thinking.

When they're little, it's vital that you build a responsive relationship with your baby and interact in simple, but enriching ways, as they first learn to pay attention and make sense of the world.

Then, as your child grows, it's important that you support their emerging skills, provide opportunities to practice what they've learnt, and gradually let your youngster direct their own actions with lessening supervision.

Harvard says that executive function skills develop quickly between the ages of three and five, and during childhood, you can help your child hone their skills by:

  • Establishing routines
  • Splitting large tasks into smaller ones
  • Modelling social behaviour
  • Building and maintaining positive relationships
  • Fostering creative play (e.g. imaginary play and role-play) and social connection
  • Encouraging games that promote rule-following and impulse-control

Executive functioning doesn't happen overnight. In fact, teenagers and young adults are still learning these valuable skills, but with so many benefits, it's important to promote executive functioning in your child's early years and beyond.

Which games teach executive function skills?

Age-appropriate games are a great way to help your child learn through play, and Bright Horizons suggests these parent-child and child-child activities to build executive function skills:

  • Peek-A-Boo and Pat-A-Cake are two games that help babies build working memory and learn how to exercise self-control, because they use an element of surprise and rhythmic verses.
  • Red Light, Green Light builds self-control in toddlers because it involves quick changes from moving to stopping. To practice flexible thinking, it’s a great idea to change up the rules intermittently, so that one game is played the traditional way and the next game involves running on red and stopping on green.
  • Preschoolers benefit from pretend play, which involves children recreating scenarios, playing cooperatively, negotiating, developing rules and creating storylines. The experts say this allows them to, 'Exercise flexibility, solve problems within a social context and exercise self-regulation.'
  • Strategy-based board games, like Chess or Mastermind, give school children independence and encourage them to practice impulse control. They also use working memory and mental flexibility to make plans, and new plans, during the game.

Executive function brings great potential. By practising their skills over time, children can learn to focus, think, plan and succeed – whether they end up in the corporate world or somewhere else entirely.

References and Further Reading

Harvard: What is Executive Function? And How Does It Relate to Child Development?
Harvard: Executive Function & Self-Regulation
Bright Horizons
7 life skills that will help your child succeed

Related Articles

Article image

Why risky play is important for young children

Safely providing children the freedom to explore new experiences and challenges, and venture into territory that isn't 100 per cent safe.

Article image

The anti-bias approach in early childhood education

Anti bias education is an approach to teaching designed to increase understanding of differences and their value to a respectful and civil society.

Article image

The Active Play Guidelines for young children

It's important for babies, toddlers and preschoolers to be busy, but the big question is - how active and how rested should under-fives be?