What Is Executive Functioning in Children?


Nov 30, 2018


Executive function — you’ve probably heard the phrase. You probably know generally what it is. But what is executive functioning in children, specifically? How do executive function skills develop by age?

Executive function is a set of skills described as the ‘CEO of the brain.’ It is responsible for seeing an idea or project through from start to finish, which involves scheduling, organizing, prioritizing, anticipating obstacles and much more — sometimes all at once. EF, therefore, comprises those cognitive or mental abilities that people need to actively pursue goals, to assess how they behave toward their future goals, and determine what mental abilities they require to accomplish them.

Building executive functioning in children is important because these skills are strong predictors of academic performance; executive functioning is associated with school success in middle and late childhood, various studies have found. Researchers also continue to provide evidence that developing executive function skills seems to directly impact performance in mathematics, and influence on science, reading and writing success has been suggested, too. Therefore, building executive functioning in children, and helping them build these skills early, is as important as teaching them 2+2=4 or the ABCs.

What is executive function?

To shape these executive function skills, it’s important to know what they are. Researchers have identified seven of them:

  • Self-awareness, or attention towards oneself — that is, the ability to understand your perception is unique from others’, your actions affect them, and your own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Inhibition or self-restraint — that is, the ability to control your impulses.
  • Non-verbal working memory — that is, visual imagery, or, how well you can picture things in your mind and work towards them.
  • Verbal working memory — that is, self-speech or internal speech — your “inner monologue.”
  • Emotional self-regulation — that is, the ability to take the previous four skills and use them them to manipulate your own emotional state by learning to use words, images, and your own self-awareness to process and alter how you feel about people, events and situations.
  • Self-motivation — that is, the ability to motivate yourself to complete a task when there is no immediate external consequences or rewards.
  • Planning and problem solving — that is, the ability to play with information in our minds and come up with new ways of doing something.

These seven executive functions develop over time, generally in the above order as kids age; children continue to develop their executive functioning well into their 20s. Self-awareness starts to develop around age 2, and by age 30, planning and problem solving should be fully developed in a neurotypical person. The upcoming articles in this series will explore how to build executive functioning in children by age group.


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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