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What is Executive Functioning Development

The first time you hear that your 7-year-old child is weak in “executive functions” it sounds like a joke. No kidding—that’s why they are a first grader, not a CEO. But executive function are the essential self-regulating skills that we all use every day to accomplish just about everything. They help us plan, organize, make decisions, shift between situations or thoughts, control our emotions and impulsivity, and learn from past mistakes. Kids rely on their executive functions for everything from taking a shower to packing a backpack and picking priorities.

When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills it promotes positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices.

Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated and must operate in coordination with each other.

· Working memory: governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

· Mental flexibility: helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or

to apply different rules in different settings.

· Self-control: enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them and some children may need more support than others to reach optimal EF development.

Growth-promoting environments provide children with “scaffolding” that helps them practice necessary skills before they must perform them alone. Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection.

Here is a list of tips and tools to help set kids up for success and support EF growth:

Visuals and Calendars:

Kids should have a calendar for school assignments and classes—preferably color-coded by subject — and another for social and extra curricular activities. Keeping things separate avoids confusion and makes time management less tricky.

You can make visual supports for nearly anything! For example: morning routine; make your bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, have breakfast, grab your lunch, get your backpack.

Here are some resources to help you create visuals around your home:


The steps necessary for completing a task often aren’t obvious to kids with executive dysfunction, and defining them clearly ahead of time makes a task less daunting and more achievable. Following a checklist of steps also minimizes the mental and emotional strain many kids with executive dysfunction experience while trying to make decisions.

Structure sensory input:

When your child is engaging in activities that require a high volume of EF skills think about organizing the sensory input; good earplugs or noise canceling/reducing headphones work wonders if your home is busy and noisy, reducing visuals around the homework/thinking zone, soft lighting, use of visual timers to structure the time your child will engage in the task, aromatherapy; citrus for alerting, lavender for calming.


When it comes to getting through the day, food equals focus. Set kids up with healthy easy-to-eat snacks. Stay away from things that are big, messy, or high in sugar and opt instead for portable protein-rich nibbles to help kids maintain blood sugar throughout the day.

When supporting our children to develop their executive functioning skills remember

Tell me and I forget – teach me and I remember – Involve me and I learn

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