The Importance of Executive Functioning Skills In Child Development Today

A child with good executive functioning skills is an excellent learner, exhibits positive behavior, and makes healthy choices in life.


Updated April 19, 2022
children and executive functioning skills

The executive functioning skills describe your child’s higher-level mental abilities to manage and regulate tasks, actions, and emotions. They are helpful in keeping her alert, organized, and emotionally secure.

The skills involve the use of logic to have herself under constant check, and prevent negative energy and emotions from taking over.

To illustrate, your child’s executive functions are working just fine if she

  • can plan, start, execute, and complete goals
  • pays attention and filters distractions
  • can juggle multiple tasks and time efficiently
  • has inhibitory control and better self-management
  • has an open and flexible mind
  • regulates and controls her private and public behavior
  • controls her anger, sadness and even happiness

These skills are important because they are central to academic excellence, social-emotional wellbeing, and productivity.

Children who are helped achieve higher levels of ‘executive functions’ become better learners and workers, exhibit positive behavior, live accomplished lives, and make healthy choices for school, work and life.

The opposite is true in children who fail to master healthy executive functioning skills. They may have problems learning, and will exhibit questionable personalities.

Unfortunately, children are not born with working executive functions. Fortunately, they come into this world with inherent capabilities to learn them. They can learn these skills with the help of parents, educators, and clinicians who provide supportive routines, playtime, and games.

What happens is that parents and educators set up relevant scaffoldings and structures that enhance the acquisition of these lifelong skills.

NOTE: The executive functions and the human anatomy

Executive functioning skills are associated with the frontal lobes of the brain located just above the eyes. To support the frontal lobes are the connecting cortical lobes and subcortical frameworks. The frontal lobes account for roughly 40% of the size of the brain and are also the LAST faculties of the brain to develop and mature.

The breakdown of executive functioning skills and self-regulation

Different sources and arguments list anything from 5 to 12 executive functioning skills, but these can be summarized into three broad categories:

1. Working memory

Working memory sums up your child’s ability to retain new information and use this efficiently in an ongoing cognitive activity.

It is like a ‘sticky note’ in the brain which retains information during an active task she is working on.

It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving. 

NCBI

For your child to master this mental skill, there is need to encourage her to create mental images of the tasks at hand or the text he is reading.

Factors such as attention and focus play a big role in furthering working memory. These can be disturbed by distractions and other reasons.

This is not to say distractions are bad. Rather, children must be helped to work their way through simple distractions at first in order to become better at multitasking with many distractions.

Parents should chunk information into small bits in order to help children remember most of the information they are given, such as lists of items to buy.

The tasks given to children should not be the reason they fail to focus and pay attention.

For example, your child may fail to remember items you ask her to fetch or do because of poor instructions. When you send your child to fetch your boots, turn off the TV, and get your belt first, she may remember to get the watch and forget about the rest, or vice versa.

What this means is that working memory should not be taxed to the extent that comprehension becomes a problem.

In the following sentence, for example, comprehension can be a problem both for children and adults due to poor arrangement of words:

It is said that, if your work is not overwhelming, your car is in good repair, and the leaves have changed color, it is a good time for a fall vacation.

NCBI

Yet the sentence can make better sense if said differently:

It is said that a good time for a fall vacation is when your work is not overwhelming, your car is in good repair, and the leaves have changed color.

NCBI

Of course, working memory improves with time through life experiences and practice.

Failure to execute working memory can be explained when your child is forgetful, slow in solving problems, and planless when faced with challenges that demand prompt answers and actions.

2. Flexible thinking

Flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility describes your child’s ability to figure out multiple solutions to everyday tasks and emerging challenges.

This happens in real life because our plans are sometimes subject to changes because of one reason or another, which forces us to figure out new solutions. It is more or less a Plan B strategy!

Ultimately, your child should learn to tweak her decisions based on emerging challenges.

With cognitive flexibility, your child is tasked to:

  • adjust her thinking and expectations by adapting to new situations and environment
  • look at things differently by shifting her approaches
  • explore new possibilities by improvising with new and better solutions

A child with a flexible mentality will not mind switching seats in the classroom in the event that another child takes hers.

Elsewhere, when you send your child to the shop to purchase your favorite peanut butter and it is missing, her ability to opt for an alternative solution is very important.

Without a flexible mind, your child will most likely walk back home empty-handed.

Also true, your child’s ability to figure out an alternative route to school when the main road is closed is invaluable especially when the ‘obvious‘ option is to walk back home.

Children who are brought up in a rigid design where only one answer fits the bill will most likely fall victim to the demands of flexible thinking.

Parents and educators can incorporate the concepts of rigidity and flexible thinking in play and other tasks, to help children see the differences in their choices.

Ultimately, they will recognize the importance of flexible faculties of the brain.

3. Self-control

Self-control, self-discipline, or inhibitory control describes the mental skills your child uses to manage and restrain her thoughts, actions, emotions, and other responses.

The skill helps her to think before she becomes involved in useless fights with peers with whom she disagrees. This gives meaning to the phrase – think before you act. Effective development of the skill builds up to what is known as emotional intelligence.  

Children learn to master this skill when parents themselves exhibit self-control at home. They will learn to control their emotions and desires when their parents exhibit the same abilities.

You can find out if these skills have developed correctly by subjecting your child to marshmallow tests and other experiments. As much as these tests may not always be the perfect reflectors of self-control, somehow, they are indicators of improved mental development in your child.

Executive function disorders:

A child with executive function disorders will exhibit some or most of the following:

  • Difficulty staying organized in private and in public:
  • Finds it hard to process, store, and retrieve information
  • Is socially inhibited
  • Has difficulty planning for now and tomorrow
  • Finds it hard to manage time
  • Has difficulty paying attention and sitting still like others
  • Does not start and complete tasks unless reminded repeatedly
  • Loses personal belongings and other stuff
  • Is poor at managing multiple tasks
  • Has trouble managing emotions and impulses
  • Gets involved in risky activities
  • Lacks the concern and care for people and animals
  • Is poor at self-awareness
  • Stays away from challenging tasks
  • Has low levels of motivation and interest

Other factors known to disrupt executive functioning skills

Executive function deficits may happen as a result of medical and other conditions listed here:

In Conclusion:

If you want your child to live happily and become successful, you must definitely make an effort to boost her executive functions.

The skills will begin to make sense to your child when you practice them first. Coupled with trust and willingness to think outside the box, your child will see reasons to embrace them and maximize their benefits.

The early efforts to nurture executive functions will ultimately become the predictors of what they will become when they grow up.

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