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Helping Children Develop Their Executive Functioning Skills

The term “executive functioning” refers to a vast range of skills that are required for almost all aspects of life. Some examples of executive functioning include how we organize and plan, set and meet goals, follow multi-step directions, exhibit self-control, time-management, & maintain focus – to name just a few. While it may seem as though some people are just naturally more organized than others, but no-one is born with executive functioning skills rather, like many other skills in life, they are learnt. No matter how old you are, or how perfectly scattered you may feel, it’s never too late to start strengthening your executive functioning muscles.

The Executive Functioning Blueprint

Humans are not born with these skills, rather we are born with are the cognitive blueprint for developing them. Through practice and experience, beginning in infancy, children begin building the foundations of their working memory and self-control. These skills develop most rapidly between the ages of 3 to 5 years, followed by another large spike in development during adolescence, and then early adulthood.

Executive Functioning Formation Throughout Childhood

From early childhood we are learning different executive functioning skills all the time. During infancy games such as peak-a-boo teaches a young child about “waiting” with anticipation of the caregivers sudden & very exciting return to their line of sight. A caregivers’ role is never done though, as adults provide the scaffolding for children to progressively develop their executive functioning skills; while initially this is through play, turn-taking, & age-sensitive adaptive life skills; this then soon becomes relevant to their education. The developing executive functioning skills of children and adolescents assists children to behave in ways that support their learning, engagement with their community and peers.

Daily Challenges with of Delayed Executive Functioning

When a young child has a delayed executive functioning, they may seem to display some very challenging behaviours, which may absorb a great deal of your parenting patience. As frustrating as this may be, the protracted development of their prefrontal cortex can be supported to help develop their executive functioning skills. While their continuing to mature, making adjustments to not overburden a young person’s capabilities are shown to be typically much more effective than becoming frustrated or negative consequences.

Activities to Enhance Maturing Executive Function Skills

3 to 5 years old:

Imaginary Play can be quite helpful for a young person's executive functioning, as it is throughout this play that the child will develop a set of rules which guide the actions of their game. They are also managing to hold complex ideas, follow sequences of their actions, inhibit certain impulses that may not suit their play.

Storytelling can similarly help enhance executive functioning as with practice a child is able to form larger and more complex plots.

Movement through song and other games the mental demand of song and movement helps support executive functioning through synchronizing words, action and rhythm. While being physically active with activities such as climbing beams and other structure. Engaging in new and fun activities, children need to focus their attention, monitor their actions and persist to achieve a certain goal. All of which are enjoyable ways to further enhance their executive functioning.

5 to 7 years old

There are many Board games and card games that provide a multitude of executive functioning benefits such as activating working memory, strengthening cognitive flexibility, challenge impulsivity, and holding multi-step plans in mind. For instance, Memory, Uno, Snap, or Battleship.

Physical movement activities and games can also exercise attention, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility. This may include, musical statues, Simon says, or a range of organized sports.

Quiter activities such as puzzles, mazes, or other brain teasers also exercise attention, persistence and problem solving. All very useful at strengthening cognitive flexibility and working memory.

7 to 12 year olds

Similar to the 5 to 7 year age bracket, the 7 to 12 year olds can also improve their mental flexibility, planning and strategy skills through board games and card games. Games that are faster paced can also assist in the development of decision-making and attention. Games that also require greater strategy can assist with holding more complex moves in mind, making plans and adjusting depending upon your opponent and the rules of the game. Complex games such as Minecraft or Dungeons and Dragons are examples of popular online or card games that require holding complex information in the working memory about imaginary worlds, rules about characters, and strategy to complete goals.

Physical movement games or organized sports can also support the executive functioning, particularly when requiring coordination and fast-paced decision making.


Enter the adolescent years where social life and skills are increasing in complexity, the executive functioning skills are not yet that of an adult, yet the life demands are at times similar. Assisting a young person with the skills for setting goals, planning and monitoring are important life skills at this age which can be readily applied to many activities of daily living, social skills, and education.

Teaching a growth-mindset from an early age helps a young person recognize their efforts and experiences all form part of their own development, rather than being perceived as a failure. Journalling is also a helpful way to develop self-reflection providing a way to further explore thoughts and feelings, to encourage positive action.

Interruptions and multitasking – while multi-tasking may be enjoyable (watching tv while working) there is evidence to say that it detracts from performance.

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