What Parents Should Know About Executive Function Development

What Parents Should Know About Executive Function Development

All of us have acted on impulse every once in a while. Perhaps we made a clothing purchase on a whim – something that we never ended up wearing. Maybe we made a quick hurtful comment to someone without thinking. But for the most part, we control our impulses pretty well. That’s because as adults we have a well-developed executive function, and impulse control is a part of that.

As a parent, you will also need to help your child develop the same controls. This post provides some basic guidance for that.

So What is Executive Function?

Executive functioning refers to a group of mental abilities that allow us to focus, learn, manage our everyday lives, and work. Without them, it is hard to navigate the world around us.

Source: Addvantages Learning Center

There are three critical pieces that make up executive function skills:

Working Memory

We retain what we learn and experience and use these memories to guide everything from our behaviors to decision-making. A simple example is a child touching a hot stove and experiencing pain. That memory will help them avoid doing this again.

Cognitive Flexibility

This is also called flexible thinking. It means that we can focus when needed but also shift our attention when necessary and function differently in different circumstances. Thus, a child may be absorbed in a toy but be able to shift that focus when a parent calls upon them to do something else – perhaps go have dinner. Another aspect of flexible thinking involves discovering new “rules,” such as a new and different use for a common object.

Self-Regulation Skills

Self-regulation skills allow us to set priorities, but also to control impulsive behaviors. Infants and toddlers, for example, have little impulse control. They may have a temper tantrum or grab a prohibited item even when told “no.” Over time, they learn to control their impulsive behaviors. If they don’t, there can be serious issues.

Obviously, children are not born with executive function. It is something that they develop over time as they explore and experience the world around them. But they do not do this all on their own. Parents, teachers, and other significant adults assist them.

How To Improve Executive Function Development in Your Child

While executive function development does occur naturally, there are things you can do to move this along. Here are a few strategies for that.

Encourage Accountability

We are all accountable for our actions. And our kids need to learn this too. The easiest way to do this is to provide them with tasks to complete such as:

  • picking up toys
  • cleaning their room
  • doing their laundry
  • abiding by curfews.

And outline the consequences when your expectations are not met. Understanding that there are consequences (good and bad) for choices and behaviors and learning to accept them means that kids are moving toward responsible adulthood.

Provide Praise and Rewards

From a psychological standpoint, children will repeat behaviors that result in rewards and/or praise. So, when parents are consistent in providing rewards for such things as task completion, making a good decision, or controlling their impulses, etc., they are reinforcing executive functioning.

Rewards for young children should be external and tangible. And they should come immediately after the behavior. For example, suppose your child has trouble keeping his room clean. You may begin with a daily reward. Gradually increase the time – 3 days of a clean room, then 5.

Also, rewards do not have to be toys or candy. For a milestone, how about a small ceremony and presenting a certificate? We have a ton of kids certificates on our website you can download for free and give away for various achievements!

clean teeth award

Teach Compassion Through Modeling

We all make mistakes and so will your child. How do you want others to respond to you when you make a mistake? Consider this as you respond to your child. Modeling good impulse control and not allowing emotions to control your behaviors teaches your child to do the same.

Develop Routines

What is your child’s bedtime routine? If it is haphazard, then it is not promoting executive functioning. Establish a checklist (it can be pictures for small children) of what should be done and when. Getting into the habits of routines will transfer over to other things later on.

Break Down Complex Tasks

No parent can just tell a child to clean their room. This task involves many steps. Help your child by breaking the task into smaller sequential steps. This will promote the skills of planning for attacking and completing complex tasks (think high school assignments).

Use Simple Activities to Build Flexible Thinking

Here are just two suggestions. Give your child a common object and ask how many different ways he can think of to use it. Draw a series of circles on a piece of paper. Ask your child to draw as many things as he can from those circles. There are plenty of other games to try. The end result is he will begin to understand that there are several ways to look at things and, later on, to solve problems.


These six strategies will help to build executive functioning in your child. They are easy to implement and will really pay off over the long-term. And remember this: children do learn what they see. Always be mindful that your executive functioning serves as a continuous teaching tool.

Photo by Kristin Hardwick

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