Growing the Executive Branch, pt. 2: Ages and Stages of Executive Functions

Executive function is a group of cognitive processes that help us analyze information to appropriately complete tasks or respond to social situations. A lot skills that make up this collective and many developing the moment your baby opens their eyes and see your face (Aww). It’s not until they enter their school years where cognitive struggles start to arise, like recalling info, adapting to changes, or having self-control. So how do we know what’s typical, what isn’t, and how to help? Well, let’s break it down by age.

Executive functioning is essentially an umbrella term involving cognitive control, and it can be divvied up into three main areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility (aka flexible thinking), and inhibitory (or impulse) control.

These skills are responsible for other mental functions, like:

  • Attention to tasks
  • Prioritizing, planning, and organizing of tasks
  • Initiation and completion of tasks
  • Understanding different points of view
  • Emotional regulation
  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of oneself)

Working Memory

This is the ability to mentally retain information to complete a task. It also allows us to draw on past learned experiences to apply to a current situation or use for future reference.

Difficulties can result in: Not recalling and applying important information, challenges with multi-step directions, or information “not sticking”.

Working Memory Strategies

  • Play to their strengths (and more). If your child is a visual learner, incorporate images and pictures to help auditory information stick. Even better, utilize a multisensory approach to help with their recall. The more engaged your kid’s sensory systems are to new intel, the more likely it will be absorbed and retained.
  • Practice information management. To help best capture, store, and retrieve information, try tactics like chunking data, acronyms, or songs to help your child remember.
  • Use working memory as a floodlight. Focus on a single activity before shifting to the next task to reduce the bombardment of information they have to hold.

Apps to Try

Games to Play

Cognitive Flexibility

This refers to adaptability, switching strategies or revising plans when conditions change.

Difficulties can result in: Rigidity when familiar routines are disrupted, challenges when tasks become too complicated, frustration when success doesn’t occur on the first attempt, or inability to see things from another perspective.

Cognitive Flexibility Strategies

  • Talk about double meaning. Break down and discuss jokes, riddles, puns, and idioms to encourage the importance of context clues.
  • Change it up. Used to playing games a certain way? Change the rules. Tired of reading the same fairytale? Switch up the ending, the characters, or the plot.
  • Get to the same conclusion. Help your child find multiple ways to get the same answer. For instance, a 1+4 = 5, so does 2+3, even 5+0.

Apps to Try

Games to Play

Inhibitory Control

This is the ability to ignore distractions and resist urges to respond appropriately to presented situations.

Difficulties can result in: Blurting things without thinking or considering the situation first, participating in pleasurable things without considering obligations or commitments, rushing through assignments with a lack of accuracy or completion.

Inhibitory Control Strategies

  • Modify the environment. Reduce clutter/visual distractions, add timers (visual and/or auditory) to help teach them to pause and wait, and utilize visual schedules to help them know their responsibilities and expectations.
  • Put those listening ears on. Clearly identify expectations in various settings (at home, in school, and around the community). You can also have them repeat instructions back to you after telling them what to do.
  • Help them out. Provide structure and consistency, practice delayed gratification, discourage multi-tasking, and model self-control.

 Apps to Try

Games to Play

All of our game recs are linked and most are listed on our Child(ish) Advice #FoundItOnAmazon Idea Lists. We are not an Amazon affiliate and we do not receive a commission for these links.

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Sanghvi, N.S. (2020, April 27). Development of Executive Function in Children. Retrieved from Seminar.

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