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Importance of Executive Functioning Skills for Young Children

What is Executive Function?

Executive function is the set of cognitive skills that help us cope with everyday challenges. Effective executive functioning enable us to achieve goals, adapt to everyday situations in life that are constantly changing and to build relationships with other people. It is the set of cognitive skills that make it possible for us to mentally play with ideas, resist temptation, think before we act and stay focused on tasks while juggling multiple competing demands. We utilize it in every aspect of life, from remembering birthdays and telephone numbers to following instructions in school or at work and managing our emotions throughout the day. As it is such an integral part of our well-being, strong executive function increases our ability to build positive relationships with others and to feel competent in coping with day-to-day demands of life.

While neuroscientists are still racing to understand the brain’s complex neural processing, here are some of the commonly identified executive function domains:

  1. Inhibiting – the ability to resist impulses and inhibit one’s behaviour when appropriate.
  2. Shifting – the ability to switch attention, deal with transitions and tolerate change, think flexibly, shift focus.
  3. Emotional Control – the ability to modify one’s emotional response.
  4. Initiating – the ability to start an activity or task, to come up with one’s own ideas and problem-solving approaches.
  5. Working Memory – the ability to retain information in one’s memory and actively use or manipulate it to complete a task (eg. to follow complex instructions, or do multi-step activities such as mental arithmetic).
  6. Planning/Organizing – the ability to set goals, anticipate future developments, pre-determine steps necessary to complete a goal, organize information, identify key concepts or ideas, employ complex (or even simple) motor planning.
  7. Organization of materials – the ability to keep track of one’s materials and belongings and maintain them in an organized state, available for use when needed.
  8. Monitoring – the ability to assess one’s progress on a task (monitoring accuracy, time management, effectiveness of strategies, etc.) and ultimate performance on the task, and the ability to monitor one’s behaviours and the effect they have on others.

Why are Executive Function skills important for young children?

Our frontal lobe, often referred to as the brain’s “control centre” or the seat of executive functioning, helps us anticipate and assess risks and keeps us from acting in a way that is detrimental or inappropriate. Advances in neuroscience research has shown that this region of the brain is associated with many executive function skills including emotional regulation, problem solving, ability to focus attention amongst many other life skills critical for both school and personal success. Not surprisingly, school-going children with weak organizational, behavioural or emotional-regulation skills often find it challenging in the classroom environment where they are expected to be able to attend to multiple, often competing and changing, demands.

Our executive function is akin to the air traffic control mechanism in our brains. Having the ability to focus one’s attention, hold multiple pieces of information coming in, filtering away distractions, manipulating the information to perform as the task requires is akin to managing an air traffic control system at a busy airport. The air traffic controller sees the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways on the tarmac and has to organize each and every flight to ensure the smooth running of the airport to ensure flights take off and land safely and keep to the pre-determined schedules while managing the multiple issues that arise.

As like the air traffic controller, our executive function is the group of skills help us to focus on multiple streams of information that are coming in at the same time, monitor errors in these information and make decisions and revise plans where necessary. It enables us to resist our natural tendency to make hasty decisions when faced with frustration and anxiety. All of us rely on our well-developed personal “air traffic control system” to make it through the day. And just like us, young children depend on their emerging executive function skills to help them read, write, learn the steps in arithmetic calculations, participate in group projects and play with other children. Acquiring and fine-tuning executive function skills is critical for children to find success in their classrooms and the playground.

So where do children learn these skills?

Young children first pick up these skills from their home environment where they gradually learn and manage more aspects of their lives on their own. Age-appropriate tasks introduced in the home environment are necessary to support the emergence of children’s executive function skills by enabling them a safe place to practice and perform these tasks on their own. A two year old can learn to brush their teeth, pick out the clothes they want to wear and get dressed by themselves, while adults can provide the directions and help where necessary in order for the child to experience success in these tasks and gradually ease off the scaffolding when the child becomes proficient at the task.

Children also have the opportunity to learn and practice executive function skills in their learning environment. A large part of a child’s life is spent in school and it is often within the group setting of a classroom that a child’s delay or deficits in age-expected executive function skills are first noted when the child has to cope with the added demands of schoolwork. In fact, executive function skills are often a precursor to whether a child is ready to successfully learn in a school setting.

What does weak executive function look like in the learning environment?

While environment and individual temperament influence the way a child behaves when they encounter difficulties in the learning environment as a result of weak executive function, here are some commonly reported behaviours in classroom settings:

Problems with…  Might look like this…
  • Impulsivity – will often start on an activity before listening to instructions
  • Difficult staying in line when moving around the school, or even staying in the classroom
  • Interrupting others or calling out in class
  • Needing more adult supervision and structure
  • Difficulty changing tasks, places, approaches to problems
  • Difficulty tolerating change (like a substitute teacher, or a change in a planned activity)
  • Black and white thinking, can’t see the grays, can’t let go (not won’t let go – an important distinction)
Emotional Control
  • Outbursts, sudden/frequent mood changes, emotionally reactive, periods of excessive emotional upset
Working Memory
  • Trouble remembering things (phone numbers, instructions)
  • Losing track of what they are doing
  • Forgetting the purpose of an errand
  • Frequently failing to stick to an activity (poor sustained attention)
  • Underestimating the time to complete a task, or level of difficulty
  • Waiting to the last minute to begin a big project
  • Mixes up steps involved in a project or in any multi-step sequence
  • Failing to understand main points in written or verbal material
  • Losing track of homework assignments
  • Getting caught up in details and losing track of the “big picture”
Organization of materials
  • Trouble keeping school materials/belongings organized
  • Leaving things at home that should be at school and vice versa
  • Locker/desk/schoolbag is a mess
  • Frequently losing things
  • Failure to have materials ready for project assignments
  • Difficulty assessing their own performance after finishing a task, assessing what works and what doesn’t work
  • Difficulty recognizing and keeping track of the effect their behaviours have on others

Dispelling Myths on Executive Function

1. Executive Function comes automatically

Given the importance of executive functioning in our daily lives, sadly, we aren’t born with this set of skills that enable us to organize plans, focus attention and to inhibit our impulses.

We are, however, born with the potential to develop and continue fine-tuning these skills throughout childhood and into adolescence. The good news is that executive function skills can be developed through practice and strengthened when they are applied and honed over time. Studies show that while our genetic blueprint provide an indication of our capacity to learn these skills, early childhood environments also play an important part in the development of executive function capacities that children will rely on throughout their lives. Therefore, it is very important to provide the support that children need to build these skills at home, at school and in any other settings they experience regularly so that they can have successful lives and contribute positively to their communities.

2. Kids behave uncooperative intentionally

Imagine a classroom of thirty first graders who are unable to control their impulses, wait their turn, stay focused on their work or remember the teacher’s instructions. Even when only a few of the children in the class display the above behaviours, the entire classroom can quickly become disorganized and have an impact on the learning environment. Teachers also spend precious classroom time on managing classroom behaviours rather than using it on productive learning activities. Sadly, young learners displaying these behaviours are often assumed to be uncooperative intentionally and as a consequence, face the threat of being expelled from their learning environment. This is counter-productive to what a young learner with weak executive function needs as they risk losing the necessary platform to practice and receive scaffolding in developing this critical set of skills.

Nobody enjoys being unsuccessful and being unable to control their bodies to attend to the tasks expected of them. While disruptive behaviour may be upsetting and interrupt normal classroom function, it is often an underlying call for help. When these calls for attention goes unanswered, or even worse – punished, not only are the young learner’s needs ignored but their disruptive behaviours may often escalate. (Without the opportunities to use and strengthen these skills, children can have a very hard time managing the daily demands of life. As a child, this often translates into poor academic achievement and the inability to form and sustain friendships.) As the child becomes a young adult, they may find it difficult to hold down a job or manage other crisis which may pose even greater consequences.

3. Focusing only on academic content for school success

Although executive function is distinct from academic content, research suggests that it is foundational to school readiness and academic success. Research has shown that executive function is the crucial building block for the early development of both cognitive and social capacities. Strong working memory, cognitive self-control and attention skills provide the basis upon which a child learns to read, write and do math. In other words, executive function skills support the process of learning content and enable children to acquire knowledge. Research has shown that children with stronger working memory, inhibition and attention skills have been found to make larger gains on tests of early math, language and literacy development during the preschool years than their peers with weaker executive function skills. Similarly, children whose behaviour was well-regulated scored higher on tests of early reading and language skills in first grade compared with children who demonstrated less well-developed executive functioning.

Young children who have trouble staying focused may also have trouble following instructions and are at elevated risk of displaying aggressive and confrontational behaviour with adults and other children. Executive function skills like completing tasks, solving problems, organizing information, making and changing plans are critical in successful interactions in the classroom. The playground is also an important practice ground for a child to practice their executive function skills. For example, children have to come up with a plan to play together and communicate with other on what roles they are playing while remembering each other’s roles. The child who cannot follow the agreed roles or is unable to negotiate the rules of the game is either told what to do by others or is unable to play along with the roles, causing the play to fall apart. When that happens, other children may refuse to play with the child who, in turn, gets frustrated and may act out, exacerbating the situation as other children may start changing their minds about playing with the particular child.

What can we do to strengthen Executive Function in young children?

Neuroscience research has provided new understanding of how the brain works. We now know that the right exercises and activities can build new circuitry in the brain and strengthen areas of identified weaknesses. Some helpful learning strategies that would benefit all children, not just those with weak executive functions, include:

  • Time and work organisers
  • Colour-coded or sectioned notebooks
  • Calendars to keep track of datelines and monitor progress
  • Task analysis checklists
  • Memory aids such an mnemonics
  • Adapting learning aids/techniques to the strengths of their learning styles (such as audio recordings of classes for the auditory learner)
  • Breaking down problems into manageable chunks
  • Realistically estimating time demands
  • Generating alternative solutions and selecting the best one for use
  • Encouraging reflection and consideration of options before acting upon a first thought

In fact, these strategies benefit students beyond their academic years and encourage self-reliance and self-monitoring skills that are necessary to lead a full and productive life.

For the students where executive function weakness manifest in emotional, social and behavioural challenges, targeted remediation is necessary to understand and rectify the deficits that give rise to these challenges. For example, identifying the antecedents that trigger a child’s challenging behaviours and then working collaboratively with the child to remediate the underlying lagging skills can provide the individual with more relevant skills to successfully manage the triggers. While this may be a slow, repetitive process compared to the learning strategies, consistent scaffolding and repetition to practice overcoming their challenges will enable the child to learn to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, build confidence and motivation to develop a more appropriate adaptive response to situations that may be challenging to them.

How can an Educational Therapist help?

As learning differences vary widely across individuals, working with a qualified Educational Therapist is becoming an increasingly popular option to address weak executive function. An Educational Therapist combines both educational and therapeutic approaches to help students with learning differences on a one-on-one basis. Sessions are highly-personalised to address each individual’s weaknesses and harness their strengths. Through educational therapy, the young learner is given the opportunity to practice critical executive function skills in a controlled setting and gain confidence through experiencing success in the adoption of these skills.

A qualified Educational Therapist will tailor their instructions to address weaknesses in a young learner’s executive function and academic skills such as reading, social skills, and sensory integration problems. They can model successful application of executive function strategies and provide opportunity for young learners to practice being successful in adopting these strategies. An experienced Educational Therapist will also develop a student’s metacognitive awareness, encouraging learners to reflect on their own learning journey and to self-regulate their mental processing in order to improve their ability to learn. This therapeutic approach allows the student to face the emotional aspects of the challenges he or she faces, which is essential for the development of executive function strategies.

Ensuring that children develop a healthy range of executive function skills is essential to improving their quality of interactions and experiences as they mature into young adults. Building these abilities in young children may take time and explicit instruction. Young children rely on caregivers, educators and communities to provide a safe and stable environment for them to explore, practice and experience success in their emerging skills. If your child is experiencing signs of executive functioning issues, this does not mean they cannot flourish in school, work and personal life. It is important to recognise these difficulties as early as possible and provide specific coping strategies for your struggling learner to help them stay focused and remain motivated in situations that can otherwise feel too challenging.


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Post Author: Ng Cher Khee