top of page

What Is Executive Function and How Can I Help My Child Develop It?

To be able to nurture your child's executive functioning skills, you must first understand what it is and what it does within your brain!

What is executive function?

Executive function refers to your brain's management system. This system is responsible for your working memory, inhibitory control or self-control, and cognitive flexibility. Within these three categories, many aspects of your day-to-day life are controlled such as:

  • Your ability to pay attention

  • Organizing yourself, your environment and your thoughts

  • Planning and prioritizing your day, week and future

  • Understanding perspectives other than your own

  • Regulating your emotions

  • Initiating steps to carry out a task or goal

  • Controlling your behaviour in different emotional states

  • Your ability to problem-solve

As you can see, your executive function controls many of the things you do every day. For example, when you are pulling up to a four-way stop, your executive function kicks in and helps you asses who got to the intersection first, and who goes second, all while checking for pedestrians and controlling your vehicle. On Sunday when you are planning out your week and deciding what tasks you need to accomplish first and what can wait until the end of the week, that is your executive function helping you make those decisions. Or when you're working on writing a school paper, you are bouncing between your book for information, and your computer screen to type information, that is your executive functioning skills helping you do that.

What does executive function look like in children?

Executive function skills build over time. These skills develop in stages, so we have to acknowledge what is developmentally appropriate when we look at this specific set of skills. However, there are many ways we can see these skills through the child's everyday routines and play.

For example, if there is a bowl of candy out and you tell your child they can have just one, and they take their one candy and run along to play, this is their self-control which is a skill controlled by your executive function. If you were to see your child, get upset, take a handful and run away, or possibly take one and come back for more after, this could be a sign that this skill has not yet developed - but this does not mean that it won't!

What can I do to help develop my child's executive function?

There are many ways you can nurture your child's executive functioning skills:

  1. Label your emotions, and your child's. When you label your emotions and share them with your child in a positive way, they will learn from you that it is okay to have big feelings and it is okay to talk about them. In doing this, your child will learn to recognize what they are feeling, and therefore be able to regulate themselves, with or without support from you. Learning how to do this will help their executive function skills such as controlling their behaviour during high emotions, understanding perspectives other than their own, and regulating their emotions.

  2. Support, but do not over support. Yes, there can be such a thing as over supporting! You can never give your child too many hugs or kisses, or tell them you love them too much, but when your child is trying a new activity like a puzzle for example, if you put all the pieces together for them, they are not learning how to problem-solve on their own. Instead, allow them to build the puzzle and put the pieces together, while you encourage them, teach them the tricks like putting all the flat-edged border pieces together first, and reassure them if they begin to get frustrated. Problem-solving is a major life skill, and the more you do to nurture this skill, the more successful your child will be as they get older and face bigger puzzles or problems.

  3. Set your child up for success. Since executive function skills develop at different rates and times, it is important to keep this in mind. When you are working with your one-year-old, giving them a five-step plan may not be the most effective. However, giving them a very simple one or two-step plan will likely be more successful. For example, "Take your shoes off and put them on the shelf," would be more appropriate than "go inside, take off your shoes, put them on the shelf, go brush your teeth, and then go to bed." By setting children up for success with easy-to-follow instructions, they can start to build self-confidence while developing their executive function skills!

Remember, children aren't born with executive function skills, these skills build over time with the support of parents, caregivers, and other adults in their life. Just make sure to be patient and give your child space to explore and learn new things!


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page