How to Boost Executive Functioning Skills in Babies

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Dec 13, 2018

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Executive functioning skills are big predictors of academic success and play a large role in how well a child will understand and perform in Math, reading, writing, Science — and life. Executive functioning skills, which we explored in part one of this series, comprise abilities as basic as self-control, memory, self-awareness, reasoning, problem solving and more.

Executive functioning skills in babies

While the development of the brain region responsible for executive function takes off around 3 to 4 years, the cognitive ability behind these skills builds from 6 months, onward. Between 6 to 18 months, babies will increasingly be able to:

  • utilize their working memory — for example, draw upon what they’ve just seen to find an object you’ve hidden under their blanket
  • control their impulses — for example, refrain from touching a hot surface that you’ve warned them not to touch
  • develop strategies (from 9 months onward) — for example, figure out how to get an object set just beyond their reach

Therefore, per Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, and developmental pediatrician Dr Mausam Shahpurwala, there are executive functioning activities for babies as young as 6 months that will help them build these essential skills from the start of life.

Executive functioning activities for babies

Play peek-a-boo and other hiding games

Peek-a-boo is a classic for a reason: It’s fun and distracting, sure, but it also helps babies develop executive functioning skills like working memory, by remembering who is hiding, and self-control, by waiting for the adult to reveal themselves.

In fact, any similar hiding game helps boost working memory. For instance, hide something under a cloth and get your baby to look for it; upon finding it, move and hide it again. Start with simple/obvious hiding places, then increase the challenge as your baby grows.

For older babies, try Hide and Seek; encourage them to hide themselves while you search for them. Be sure to narrate your search aloud (e.g. “Where is [name]? Is [name] behind the sofa? Is [name] behind the lamp?”) so they can track your location mentally.

Alternatively, games like Memory — in which you hide something under a cup amongst other, empty cups, and the baby has to guess which cup the object is under — will also help babies exercise and build their working memory.

Have a conversation

Lastly, simply talking to children will not only sustain their attention but also help them build self-control and working memory. Making conversation with a baby who can’t talk is really easy — it’s all about Serve and Return. With infants, start by following their attention and naming aloud the things they are looking at. This will help the infant maintain their attention a little longer and practice actively focusing. It also helps babies’ working memory, which aids language development — as babies develop memory of what is said, eventually they map words to objects and actions; from this comes understanding, then the ability to speak.

Conversations in any language are helpful — even in more than one language. It has been found that bilingual children have better executive function skills than monolingual children.


Read more: Lessons in Baby Brain Development from Serena Williams’s Tennis Game


Chant simple rhymes that end in surprises

“Reciting rhymes that end in surprises will help them control their anticipatory reactions and this will again boost their self-control skills,” says Dr Shahpurwala.

A good example of this is Johny Johny Yes Papa, which goes:

Johny, Johny  / Yes papa?
Eating sugar? / No papa.
Telling lies? / No papa.
Open wide. / Ha ha ha!

The ‘Ha ha ha’ breaks from the pattern of the rhyme, and thus, surprises the baby, who learns self-control by waiting through the whole rhyme to get to the ‘fun part.’

Hand motions during these rhymes keep infants engaged and “…they will end up helping parents work on their babies’ self-control skills and language,” says Dr Shahpurwala. Babies will try to remember the steps, copy them and try and babble or say the words that go along with these movements.

Play copycat games

Babies learn via play, but they also learn by watching and copying adults and older children. Copycat games maximize this natural learning, and also exercise executive function skills in babies by requiring them to watch, wait, remember and recall an adult’s actions in order to copy them. Depending on the age of the baby, these games could range from making a simple gesture and the baby copying it (repeat); to lining up toys in a pattern and asking the child to copy the pattern.

“When playing imitation or copying games, what infants actually end up doing is practice attention, jog their working memory, along with working on self-control,” says Dr Shahpurwala. “When you do something as simple as waving or organizing toys in certain ways, playing with Lego, the child is trying to do what you do by keeping a track of your actions. So they wait for their turn, then recall what you did — in turn boosting all the functions mentioned above.”

The patterns or play that the child must copy can increase in complexity as they grow.

Play simple pretend games

Simple role plays are meant for slightly older babies, because they enjoy doing the things you do. From sweeping to dusting, to stacking up toys, in imitating you by doing so, they will again help boost working memory, self-control, and selective attention. “But you must ensure that the toddler is finishing his tasks without distractions and controlling his urge to finish other things,” advises Dr Shahpurwala.


This is part of a series on building executive functioning skills in children. The next installment will explore executive functioning activities for toddlers between ages 18 and 36 months.

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Written By The Swaddle Team

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