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Parents: Do You Know About Executive Functioning

Does your child fail to control emotions and act on impulses? Get distracted easily and find it difficult to finish what they started? What should you do?

Help your child develop the Executive Functioning skills:


How to raise kids who know to prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

Executive function skills are your best bet to raise resilient and organized kids.


Executive functioning skills
Examples of Impulsive Behavior and Distractions:
1. Nia, a 5-year-old, hit the other child. She, crying, blurted, “He touched my toys.”
2. When Kam and Sam sit down to study, Kam has difficulty reading complex sentences or following a long train of thought. He gets distracted easily and starts thinking about something else. On the other hand, there is Sam, who keeps a lot of ideas in her head at any given time and mentally buffers them in order to solve the problem.

Often, young children react on impulse, throwing toys, hitting other kids, and crying to get their way, while you stay clueless about what to do. They seem too young to understand how to behave and react. This is partly true because kids’ executive function, or self-regulation, is still under construction.

Yes, your child’s brain is under construction, but it needs "scaffolding" from you to build a strong structure – to have a beautiful life ahead. For that, they need your support to learn the skill set, to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

What are executive function skills and how to develop these skills in your child?

Executive functioning (EF) is a set of higher-order mental skills that help you to get things done. It drives learning, monitors thinking and behavior, and identifies mistakes. The front part of the brain (the frontal lobe) is responsible for executive functioning skills.

Developing these skills is crucial to learning and development since it assists you in planning, paying attention, remembering instructions, juggling multiple tasks, developing positive behavior, and making healthy choices.

In other words, how well you manage everything in your life is based on it. As a good manager, it coordinates your inner and outer experiences and keeps you on track toward your goals by integrating what you encounter in life with what you know.

A lack of EF skills makes it difficult for someone to take stock of their environment and change their behavior accordingly. In children, EF takes time to mature; until then they need parental guidance, problem-solving, and supervision to survive and thrive.

Psychologist Deborah Phillips from Georgetown University calls it the “air traffic control system” of our brain. Without good executive functions, disaster strikes.

A person's ability to regulate their emotions and perform executive functions depends on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are interconnected, and each operates in coordinated fashion.

Working memory:

The working memory processes information. When developed well, it allows us to manage many chunks of information simultaneously. In short, it helps us retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information for a short period of time.

Mental flexibility:

Mental flexibility is the ability to maintain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules to different situations. It involves adapting quickly to new tasks and changing perspectives. With a lack of it, we can't adapt, get stuck in old thoughts, and have tunnel vision, which makes us appear stubborn and uncooperative.


Our ability to set priorities, control our emotions, and resist impulsive behaviors is a result of self-control.

Are children born with executive function skills, or can they be learned?

Executive function meme

Image credit: Illustrator Bareera Z.

Though children are born with a genetic blueprint, but it is developed through experiences and practice.

Development of these skills usually spikes between ages 3-5, followed by another spike during adolescence and early adulthood. How you parent them and the lifestyle they live affects this process.

According to new findings, the brain responds to experiences, like a muscle. Anything you do repeatedly hardwires itself, from good habits to less-useful ones.

That means, children aren’t born with these skills—but they are born with the potential to develop them, and you provide the support and environment, so they hone these skills.

A stable home, clear limits, a time for playing, and delayed gratification practice are essential in fostering these skills.

Does that mean you have to provide support for your child until they turn adult? Absolutely not. Instead, you need to gradually let them manage more and more aspects of their lives as their executive function skills develop. However, some children may require more support in developing these skills than others.

What happens when children don’t get a congenial environment or support from family:

If children do not get what they need from their parents or adults, or if the environment they are raised in is toxic, resulting from neglect, abuse, and/or violence, their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired as it can disrupts the brain structure.

Executive dysfunction infographic

How to support your child?

The first five years of your child are crucial. During this period, they need "scaffolding" environment that encourages growth and allows them to practice the necessary skills before they do it on their own.

That’s why establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships provide your child with what they need to develop these skills. Besides, a caring, playful and nourishing childhood is your best bet to increase it.

  • Try engaging them in activities that promote creative play and social connections.

  • Teach them how to cope with stress.

  • Involve them in vigorous exercise, and over time, give them the opportunity to direct their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.

Create a schedule:

By setting a schedule for daily activities like brushing their teeth, getting dressed, putting on their shoes, combing their hair, and preparing their backpack, you can bring order into their lives.

Make a to-do list where they check off the chores they complete every day, such as making their bed, cleaning their rooms, etc.

Set a homework time:

The last thing you want your child to do is look at their homework just before they go to sleep or remember an unfinished assignment before they leave for school. You can prevent such incidents by setting a homework time, which they must do before they go to play or use electronics. Exhausted children lack focus and do have halfhearted work, which slowly turns them into procrastinators. Don’t let your child become an out-of-control procrastinator. Start teaching them time management and planning skills early in life.

Mark calendar:

In order to teach your child organization habits, introduce them to set agendas and put them on a calendar.

The act of seeing things written in front of the child stimulates the brain to work and focus on them. Moreover, the child will develop the habit of planning and organizing.

Breaking big tasks into smaller chunks:

When you see a large task, your mind gets overwhelmed, but if you break that task down into small steps, it seems achievable. Teaching your child how to break down large tasks into small steps allows them to view problems as manageable rather than overwhelming.

Following rules:

Establish some rules, and make sure your children follow them. In order to develop self-control, kids need to understand the rules for their behavior inside and outside the home. When rules are broken, they should face consequences. This helps them learn what is expected and they are more likely to be self-controlled.

Games to Improve their Skills:

To help a child develop their memory, you can play matching games with them. Playing an instrument is also very helpful in developing executive functioning skills.

Role-playing games which requires imagination promote EF in children. Free play trains inhibitory control and games improves working memory.

How the awareness about executive function helps you as a parent of:


You know this when you see a toddler misbehaving, that the brain of a toddler is not yet wired to make connections between delayed punishments and the current misbehavior. Whenever a toddler behaves in a certain way, whatever happens, the next (praise versus timeout, for example) encourages more or less of that behavior.


Teens need their parents almost as much as younger children. They certainly crave independence, but with immature EF they often fail to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. They struggle to balance their emotions and fail to think about the bigger picture, as they don't yet have a brain manager on board.


Executive function and self-regulation skills are like an air traffic control system in the brain—they help to manage information, make decisions, and plan ahead. After knowing this truth, you definitely want your child to have them. Use the scaffolding technique to help them build a successful life ahead.

Let us know in the comments which of these, you would instantly bring into practice.

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