MA Ed
Education & Reading Specialist
Chicago

Executive Functioning

Many parents come to me and tell me that their child is very bright, an excellent reader, confident in math, but that they continually forget to turn in their homework, or leave projects until the night before they are due.

The parents are exasperated and feel that their child just isn’t trying. In general children want to be successful. It is unlikely that they simply aren’t trying, but very likely that they have underdeveloped executive functioning skills. What are executive functioning skills?

From the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University:

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.


When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits.
These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families.


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. Each type of skill draws on elements of the others, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to 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.

When Do Executive Function Skills Develop?

A range of tests measuring different forms of executive function skills indicate that they begin to develop shortly after birth, with ages 3 to 5 providing an important window of opportunity for dramatic growth in these skills. Growth continues throughout adolescence and early adulthood; proficiency begins to decline later in life.

Note: This is a conceptual graph based on a synthesis of existing data gathered under the auspices of the NIH Toolbox project. A version of this graph, with complete reference information for its data sources, appears in the Working Paper titled Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function.

Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. If children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions in their environments—or (worse) if those influences are sources of toxic stress—their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired. Adverse environments resulting from neglect, abuse, and/or violence may expose children to toxic stress, which disrupts brain architecture and impairs the development of executive function.

The good news is that there are many fun activities for students that help to develop these skills!