Executive Functioning in Children: What Parents Should Know

This may be the first time you’ve heard of “executive functioning”. But did you know that it’s an integral part of your child’s development since birth?

In This Article You'll Learn About...

  1. What executive functioning is and why it’s important for your child
  2. What the skills are associated with executive functioning
  3. How to know if your child struggles with it and what you can do about it

We’ll also explore how certain disorders such as ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) affect these essential life skills.

Executive Functioning for Children

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functions are the basic skills developed in the frontal lobe, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the human brain enables us to get tasks done every day. These cognitive skills include your mind’s memory, attention, organization, time management, and self-control.

Struggling with these executive skills would make someone’s life very difficult. They may have a hard time focusing on tasks, regulating emotions, organizing information or following instructions.

Executive functioning mimics how an executive committee works in an organization. They are the core functions needed to keep other behaviours in line. It’s how we know which actions and behaviours are necessary to achieve goals and do daily tasks. They most commonly include:

  • strategizing how to do a complex task
  • keeping focus on a current task and keeping impulses in check
  • organizing ideas and thoughts
  • time management
  • working memory
  • controlling emotions and frustrations (self-control)
  • flexible and adaptive thinking

When children have opportunities to develop these skills, they will reap life long benefits. They will manifest as faster learning skills, positive behaviours and healthy decision making.

Executive Functioning for Children

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What are the Core Components of Executive Functions?

Executive Functioning consists of different skills that support the overall ability. As a result, many of them coincide and overlap with each other. Instead of thinking of them as separate components, think of them as key concepts that all help to develop executive functioning as a whole.

Working Memory

A well-working memory helps us store information more effectively and retrieve it with ease later on. For a child, an excellent memory will help them excel in the classroom. This mental skill, however, is not just about memorization.

Good memory in children may show when they remember a sequence of instructions at school. If a child experiences difficulty with this skill, they may have trouble remembering information. They may forget what they are supposed to do, even though instructions were given to them in mere minutes.

Working memory in children also helps with the following skills:

  • Organization – categorizing thoughts or items of the same kind. They can also affect their grasp of the sequence of tasks or events. Children with good working memory can tell stories from beginning to end, and they can also accomplish tasks in proper order.
  • Planning – anticipating events and preparing for them. Children with excellent planning skills have a tendency to study or do homework ahead of when they are due.

Cognitive Flexibility

Mental flexibility allows your child to problem-solve. Coming up with new solutions to problems is useful from childhood to adulthood. This flexibility allows your child to adapt to new thought processes and improve academic performance.

Flexible thinking also helps with transitioning between thoughts. When ideas and tasks come, your child’s cognitive flexibility will help them prioritize what to pay attention to.

An example of cognitive flexibility is a child working out a route from home to a new location. They may have several options, but they should be able to figure out the best route, even when encountering different situations (e.g. taking the bus instead of walking when raining, etc.)

Cognitive flexibility also helps with:

  • Adaptive Thinking – understanding new situations and overcoming problems. An excellent example is when your child can find their way to another assigned classroom or building than they expect.
  • Time Management – assessing and managing tasks within a time frame. Children with good time management may start projects and homework ahead of time. They also have a good estimation of how far along they are and when they will meet a deadline.

Inhibitory Control

Also called as response inhibition, inhibitory control is someone’s ability to combat impulses, practice emotional control and focus on everyday tasks.

A child with good self-regulation skills may stay on task longer than others. They can also temper their emotions with ease, especially in times of distress. This can help your child with their social skills and behaviour management.

Inhibitory control also helps with these executive functioning skills:

  • Self-Monitoring – checking their own performance in an activity before anyone prompts them to do so. Children will carry out tasks with enough focus and attention. Instead of impulsively answering a question on a test, they may think twice and recheck their answers.
  • Self-Control – regulating emotions and impulses. A child with excellent impulse control can control their temper in the face of mistakes and constructive criticism. They are also more focused on improving their results.
Executive Functioning for Children

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How Can I Know If My Child is Struggling with Executive Functioning?

Your child may have a weak executive functioning foundation if they:

  • struggle with setting goals and keeping them
  • rushing projects and homework at the last minute
  • skip steps in a set of instructions or don’t follow complex rules
  • don’t recheck their homework or submit them without a second thought
  • don’t pay enough attention to a task, especially when it takes a long time
  • feel overwhelmed with tasks when they are not in specific sequences
  • can’t apply something they learned in new situations
  • don’t think about the future or disregard consequences of their actions
  • find it hard to adapt to changes around them
  • can’t control emotions and are indifferent to other people’s emotions
  • have frequent emotional outbursts and shutdowns

Not all these executive function issues may be present for your child. Depending on what struggles they have and how it affects their quality of life, it might be important to focus on some functions more than others.

One of the potential causes for these issues is stunted development of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex takes a really long time to fully develop. Executive functioning develops from birth but finishes when we’re around 25 to 30 years old, which is why it’s best to address any deficiencies early.

Executive Function Disorder (EFD) is not yet recognized as a specific disability or condition. However, it may be a major effect for many neurological disorders, such as ASD or ADHD. Identifying executive dysfunction in children may lead to early identification of those disorders.

How Does ADHD Affect Executive Functioning?

Children struggling with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) may also struggle with executive functions. A common example is how they struggle with concentration and attention.

Executive function in children can definitely improve, even for those with ADHD. Several conditions will help them progress much faster, such as:

  1. focused effort towards identifying EF skills that they are weak in
  2. school involvement or particular programs that include EF practice, such as helping children be aware of how they learn
  3. enough time to practice intensive interventions to impact EF weaknesses
  4. teaching how to deal with stressful situations to help with self-control

Being understanding is important, but it’s also important to hold your child accountable for their actions. While having ADHD is out of their control, this will help them understand self-control and awareness more. It will empower them to take matters into their own hands instead of submitting to their disability.

How Can I Help My Child?

There are a few ways that you can help your child with weak executive functioning. One of the first things to do is observe your child responding to tasks. It would also be best to ask their teacher if they are meeting any difficulties at school, especially for keeping up with school tasks. Teachers are the ones that have a good observation of school-age children’s academic skills and what they struggle with.

If the child is having difficulties with keeping up, it would be best to get in-touch with their pediatrician. They will refer you to the proper specialist for diagnosis, such as a neuropsychologist.

Approaches and Interventions for Executive Functioning

Therapists may approach a child’s weak EF in two major ways. The environmental modification approach is creating a particular space to train more effectively. However, since the environment created is only one spot or place, it is not enough. When a child enters a new environment without the same preparation, they will find it hard to use the skills they have learned.

Another approach is EF training, which means allotting a focused time of the day to practice weaker executive function skills. This involves repetitive practice and cognitive training to increase retention and rehearsal of everyday situations. Review of things that they have learned (“How did you solve that?”) is also part of the process. Depending on the skill of focus and level of weakness, the activities may vary from child to child.

Online therapy and digital apps also help bring more flexibility in training executive functioning skills. It also provides families with quality of life improvements, with easy access to training and practice materials.

Talking to a Speech-Language Pathologist

Many forms of therapy (such as occupational therapy) can assist with executive dysfunction. This also includes SLPs or Speech Therapists that can help your child with activities, games, and practice sessions. These will help them improve their executive functioning skills while at home, at school or on the go.

Speaking with a speech therapist about EF will improve your child’s life experiences by:

  • addressing specific personal difficulties with executive functioning
  • experiencing less stress because of anxiety or emotional stress
  • building a better foundation for learning and formal education
  • have an easier time with everyday activities and with friends and family

Learning disabilities affect executive function differently, so interventions also vary. For example, intense training may be more stressful for children that need more time.

Talking to a therapist will help you create a personalized plan for your child’s particular concerns. They can also adjust activities and practices according to your child’s progress.

Executive Functioning for Children

Your role as a parent is part of a good foundation for their EF development. Your consistent support will help keep your child’s spirits up during practice. Working together will also make them feel more comfortable (and even enjoyable) when doing more activities.

Want to learn more about how you can get involved? Talk to us and start learning how you can help your child develop their executive functioning skills during their early years.

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Lauren Templeton - Apheleia Speech Therapy
Lauren Templeton

Owner & Speech-Language Pathologist

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