How To Boost Executive Functioning Skills In Toddlers

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Dec 21, 2018

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Photo by Lisa Tichané / Courtesy of Lisa Tichané

Executive functioning skills comprise abilities as basic as self-control, memory, self-awareness, reasoning, problem solving and more. In earlier articles in this series, we’ve explored in more depth what executive function is, and stressed how it can predict academic success and play a large role in how well a child will understand and perform in math, reading, writing, science — and life.

Executive function in toddlers (18 to 36 months)

While between months 6 and 18, skills such as working memory, and impulse control are being developed, in the following months, as babies age into toddlers, i.e., between 18 to 36 months, they refine these abilities while also developing new executive function-related skills as well as. Notably, they:

  • expand their language skills — while language is not an executive function, it strongly supports the building of executive functioning like self-regulation, by enabling toddlers to identify their thoughts and actions, think and reflect on them, and make plans.
  • understand rules — expanded language skills also help toddlers understand rules, both those that apply to games and those that regulate behavior. For instance, within this age range, children will develop the ability to understand they should wear shoes outside, but not inside.
  • play physically and gain more control over body movement — while motor control isn’t an executive function, there is evidence that physical activity exercises and reinforces executive functioning in toddlers.

Hence, per Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, and developmental pediatrician Dr Mausam Shahpurwala, there are executive functioning activities for toddlers that will exercise the cognitive abilities they are developing and help boost their executive functioning. These include:

Physical games and challenges

Physical games and challenges for toddlers teach teach them how to focus, and help them realize they may not always succeed, but that practice and developing new strategies are very important.

For instance, start with giving toddlers options they can choose from in order to try new skills — such as throwing and catching balls, balancing on beams, jumping. Simple rules around each kind of physical activity, such as taking turns running to a ‘finish line’ and back, will enhance their working memory.

You could also include games that require self-control or inhibition, like Statue or Freeze games that require children to stop upon a certain word, hold the pose, then return to moving or dancing upon the next signal. And songs like “Ring Around the Rosie” that have dance movements specific to the words exercise children’s bodies as well as their attention, working memory and self-control by requiring them to wait until certain parts of the song to do the dance.

Fingerplays that include songs and rhymes with hand gestures to match, are also a good way to engage with children at this age, because they challenge children’s attention, working memory, and inhibitory control.

Conversations that involve lots of questions

“It’s the best way to develop language skills,” says Dr Shahpurwala. “Encourage them to tell stories — by asking them how their day was, what they want to do, what they did with their friends.” Answering will require kids to reflect on their experiences, helping to enhance their working memory as they will try and hold these experiences in their mind.

Talking about feelings will also encourage storytelling and support their language development. At this age, it’s all about the questions — for instance, asking a toddler “Are you happy?” “Are you angry?” will help them have a conversation — and understand their own feelings.

Imaginary play

It is also in this age group that kids are trying to imitate adult actions and can often be seen indulging in imaginary play like, for instance, Kitchen Kitchen, Teacher Teacher. These actions are not simply imitative, but rather they are signs of simple, imaginary play plots that should be encouraged and sustained. For example, after “cooking” in the pot, the child might put the pot on the table and pretend to eat. When they are doing this, adults can ask children questions about what they are doing, what they are eating, and why they are doing it the way they are.

“It’s important that you play along, and let the child take the lead because it will help them regulate others’ behaviors and that will also help regulate their self-regulation skills,” says 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 3 to 5 years.

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Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.

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