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How does executive functioning develop throughout childhood?



April 24, 2023

Executive functioning, sometimes known as the “management system” of the brain, is a lot like air traffic control. When thoughts, emotions, impulses, and so on show up, executive functioning intercepts them and steers them in the right direction. Your executive functioning supervises and coordinates cognitive, behavioral, and emotional tasks. Whew!

For everyone, executive function helps them prioritize, organize, regulate their emotions, think creatively, plan ahead for the future, set goals, adapt to new situations, recall what they’ve learned, and stay flexible during unexpected moments. It helps all of us stay focused on tasks we need to do, including boring ones. 

These skills are crucial to build during childhood. They help children sit still, exert a level of self-control, pay attention, remember to follow rules, and adapt to new environments. They’re also a better predictor for success than intelligence, academic achievements, or socioeconomic status!

The stages of executive functioning

No one is born with executive function skills! The part of the brain that houses executive functions – the prefrontal cortex – matures well into adolescence. And executive functions are developed in the first year of life, at about six months, but they’re not fully developed until early adulthood. This means executive function skills need to begin early, be reinforced consistently, and continue from childhood to adolescence.

Around ages three to five, executive functioning accelerates. But the prefrontal cortex is super sensitive to cortisol and other proteins that result from trauma or challenges. So kids living with any kind of “toxic stress,” such as domestic violence, abuse, extreme poverty or lack of housing, substance abuse, and so on, are at a very high risk of damaging this part of the brain.

Developmental milestones vary, but executive functioning isn’t about any one ability. Executive functioning also doesn’t develop linearly. Impulse control (like difficulty taking turns), cognitive flexibility (like switching between activities or tasks), and working memory (like remembering what you were talking about) all develop at different rates. 

Furthermore, these skills are often learned through interactions with peers or at school, but they’re also learned through parents and caregivers. If a parent has a tough time regulating their emotions, they will have a tough time helping kids learn to regulate theirs.

Kids in middle school may face more difficulty with executive functioning since this is when they start having to switch classes several times a day, juggle various assignments from different teachers, keep track of various lessons, and so on. High school amplifies this and gets more difficult because there is more homework and the expectation that students will work independently. 

Executive functioning and neurodivergent kids 

If your child is neurodivergent, has learning disabilities, ADHD, or  is on the autism spectrum, challenges in executive function  might arise since the differences in their abilities and strengths may make them more  likely to have trouble with these kinds of self-regulation skills. 

The good news is that those skills eventually mature. It just takes a little longer, so the delay your child may be experiencing can be very frustrating, especially for them. In the meantime, note that your child can probably concentrate on something they find interesting, like an art project or a video game – they just might not be able to get themselves to focus on school and homework.

How to enhance your child’s executive functioning skills

So how do you foster these skills? First, providing a secure foundation is necessary. Environmental factors like family structure, education, and childhood stress can impact  executive function development. That said, these skills are also malleable; you can definitely work with your child to improve their skills through other methods. 

Look for ways to take a step back and give your child the skills and discipline to learn on their own. If they proclaim they want to get an A on their science test, ask them if they have a plan to succeed. If they’re having issues with their science assignment, ask them what’s confusing or difficult about it. And if they fail that science test? Ask what they can do  differently to prepare for the test next time. 

You’ve most likely used a to-do list and a calendar for years, but your child hasn’t. Show them how to manage their time and plan ahead by creating a visual calendar, encouraging them to fill out their daily homework planner, writing down when soccer games are coming up, or having reminders for when college applications are due.  

Teach skills like taking turns, problem-solving, and active listening. Try getting your child involved in physical activities like organized sports or martial arts. These require kids to adhere to a set of rules, keep strategy in mind, and adapt to others’ actions. Plus, they’re great for emotional well-being and getting that heart rate up!

How mindfulness and play can help 

Stress is something that “freezes” the ability to apply executive functions. And chronic stress and anxiety is a huge risk factor for impacting executive functioning throughout a child’s lifespan. That’s why metacognitive strategies like mindfulness and meditation can help your child deal with stress. Tackling stress through mindfulness training is super helpful because it encourages kids to focus on the immediate thing they are doing and feeling, while meditation is another great technique to hone those mindfulness skills. Even deep breathing exercises, expressing gratitude, and mindfulness can help improve executive functioning!

Play is another building block to stronger executive function! Spend time having fun with your child. Reading together, cooking, or playing helps kids self-regulate later on in life. Research backs us up on this! 

Know this: if your child is struggling with executive functioning, it is not related to how smart they are. Plenty of intelligent people deal with this! And it’s also not about developing willpower. It’s simply about brain development and chemistry. Remember that your Bend team can always help support you along the way!