Executive Function: Skills By Age And How To Close The Gaps

Executive function skills by age

Child psychologists often talk about the importance of executive function and self-regulation. In many ways, these core capacities are like that of an orchestra director – the ability to organize, direct and time countless skills, actions, thoughts and outside distractions. Like so many skills and abilities, executive functioning is something your child develops over time, and is linked to academic achievement and lifelong social/emotional health. This article explores the connections between executive function and academic achievement, and how understanding these connections can help improve educational outcomes.

  • Early childhood is a critical period for the development of executive function skills.
  • Studies have shown that children with strong executive function skills are more likely to be successful in school.
  • Executive function skills are also linked to numeracy and literacy skills in early childhood.
  • Executive function skills can predict academic performance in reading and math, independent of IQ.
  • Interventions that improve executive function skills have been shown to improve academic outcomes.

What Are Executive Function Skills?

In simple terms, executive function refers to a set of cognitive skills that are critical for learning and development. The brain needs this suite of skills to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. 

Executive Function Skills Include 

  • The ability to plan and solve problems
  • Focus and attention 
  • Remembering instructions
  • Controlling one's emotions and temper impulses
  • Juggling multiple tasks successfully 

What Are Executive Function Skills By Age?

Executive function skills play a crucial role in a child's cognitive development and academic achievement, improving throughout childhood and adolescence at different rates. 

“It helps to think about executive functions as the quarterback of your brain,” explains Julie D'Orsi, Healthy Young Minds Lead Psychometrist. “A strong executive functioning system benefits the whole child. For example, better working memory, attention and planning aids in academic success. Likewise advanced inhibitory control and set shifting lends itself to better behavior.” 

Here Is An Overview Of Executive Functions For Children By Age.

Infants and Toddlers (0-2 years):

  1. Attentional Control: Even very young infants have a basic ability to shift their attention, but this becomes more developed as they grow.
  2. Basic Working Memory: This might be as simple as an infant searching for a toy they saw being hidden.
  3. Inhibition: Beginning to exhibit control, such as waiting for a short period.

Preschoolers (3-5 years):

  1. Inhibition: This starts becoming more pronounced. A classic test for this age group is the "Marshmallow Test," where children are asked to wait before eating a marshmallow to get a bigger reward later.
  2. Basic Cognitive Flexibility: Children start shifting from one task to another more easily.
  3. Working Memory: They can follow a longer series of instructions and remember more information short-term.
  4. Basic Planning: Children might begin planning their play or organizing their toys in a particular manner.

Early School Age (6-9 years):

  1. Improved Inhibition: More control over their impulses.
  2. Improved Working Memory: Can remember and use more information at one time.
  3. Enhanced Cognitive Flexibility: They can adjust to changed rules in games more easily.
  4. Goal Setting: Begin to set basic goals for themselves.
  5. Organizing and Prioritizing: They start to organize their belongings and prioritize tasks like homework vs. play.

Pre-teens and Adolescents (10-12+ years):

  1. Advanced Cognitive Flexibility: Can consider multiple perspectives and approaches to problems.
  2. Strategic Planning: Can plan for longer-term projects and goals.
  3. Time Management: Begin developing a sense of time and can manage it more effectively for tasks.
  4. Problem Solving: They can think about multiple strategies to solve a problem and choose the best one.
  5. Self-reflection: Start evaluating their own thought processes and behaviors.

Keep in mind that these are general guidelines and there's significant individual variability. Some children may develop certain executive functions earlier or later than others. 

It's also important to note that executive functions can be strengthened through early intervention,  age-appropriate activities, educational games, and strategies.

How Do Executive Function Skills Affect Learning?

Research has shown a strong correlation between executive function skills and academic achievement. Children with strong executive function skills tend to perform better in school, have higher graduation rates, and are more likely to pursue post-secondary education. 

If you are concerned about executive function, you can support your child's development of these skills through targeted interventions such as cognitive training, mindfulness practices, and changes in teaching practices. 

How can executive function be improved in children?

Executive function skills are crucial cognitive abilities that begin developing in the first two years of life and continue to mature until around age 30. These skills, which include planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, and multitasking, are vital for academic achievement and overall life success. 

Children typically practice executive function skills through social interactions and by taking on responsibilities at home and school, particularly between the ages of 5 and 12. Here are some top tips to help children develop and enhance their executive function skills.

1. Establish Predictable Routines

Consistent routines provide a structured environment that helps children learn to plan and organize their time. This could include regular schedules for meals, homework, playtime, and bedtime. Predictable routines can help children understand what is expected of them and when, which can enhance their ability to plan and manage time.

2. Provide Age-Appropriate Toys and Household Items

Age-appropriate toys and household items can stimulate a child's mind and help them develop problem-solving skills. For example, puzzles can enhance cognitive flexibility and working memory, while playing with blocks can improve spatial skills and planning.

3. Use Imitation Games to Build Memory Skills

Games that involve imitation can be a fun and effective way to boost working memory. This could include games like 'Simon Says' or 'Follow the Leader', where children have to remember and replicate actions.

4. Show Them How to Use a Planner

Teaching children to use a planner can help them develop their planning and organization skills. This can start with simple tasks like marking important dates or listing homework assignments, and gradually include more complex tasks like planning for a project.

5. Help Them Create Checklists for Everyday Tasks

Checklists can be a practical tool to help children remember and complete tasks. This could include daily chores, homework assignments, or steps for a project. Checklists can help children visualize their tasks and track their progress, enhancing their planning and organization skills.

6. Set Time Limits

Setting time limits for tasks can help children learn to manage their time effectively. This could be used for homework, chores, or even playtime. Time limits can teach children to estimate how long a task will take and plan accordingly, enhancing their planning and time management skills.

7. Use a Reward System

A reward system can motivate children to practice their executive function skills. This could involve earning points for completing tasks, which can be exchanged for a reward. A reward system can make the practice of executive function skills more enjoyable and motivating for children.

  • “You know your child best, so trust your intuition,” says D'Orsi. “If you are concerned with your child's behavior and/or academic performance, speak to your child's teacher and pediatrician. A psychoeducational evaluation may tease out what is causing your child's academic or behavioral challenges and determine if they may be the result of executive dysfunction or from something else such as a learning disability. This knowledge will help to establish a more targeted plan to help your child on the road to success, both in and out of the classroom.”

Written by Dr. Cari Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds

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