Executive Function: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Updated: Sep 12, 2019



What if we told you that your child's intelligence is not the best predictor of academic success? According to Adele Diamond, a pioneer in the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, “If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions actually predict success better than IQ tests.”


Great! But . . . what does that mean?

Executive function is a set of three skills (working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control) that enable people to plan, organize, remember things, prioritize, pay attention, and get started on tasks. Basically, they are the “CEO skills” of the brain that help us do everything from going to the bathroom to writing a book report.


This little CEO in our brain starts out at birth with very limited capabilities, but through observation, training, and practice, it becomes a very capable boss.


This graph from Harvard's Center on the Developing Child makes the whole executive function development process a bit easier to visualize:



To break this picture down, imagine how well someone at each age can plan, organize, remember, prioritize, focus, and get started on tasks. Obviously, the biggest jump is from zero to five years old. Babies’ brains go from literally having none of these skills to becoming familiar enough with the world around them that they can quickly develop their working memory, inhibitory control, and their cognitive flexibility.


After around age five, the graph shows a much smaller growth rate in skills. This is when the fine tuning of skills happens, which makes a huge difference. Just because the growth is no longer as drastic after age five, the fine tuning that continues for the next 20 years is critical.

While it can be hard to imagine executive function development if you liken it to a the way physical skills develop it can be easier to imagine. In the early years, a baby can do very little to control its body movements, but by age 5 it has developed enough motor skills to run around, use a fork to eat, and grip a crayon to draw. While kids are very capable at this age, the fine motor skills they will continue to develop will allow them to do much more complicated tasks like do gymnastics, safely use sharp knives, and possibly even paint a masterpiece.


Just like years of fine tuning their motor skills makes a world of difference on what they are able to do physically, the years of fine tuning of executive function skills makes them much more mentally effective. Let’s walk through each of the 3 skills in executive function and see how they develop.

Working Memory

As an adult, we can remember the different tasks, rules, and strategies needed during a specific situation and then use that information at the appropriate time. The development of this rather impressive skill becomes noticeable around 7-9 months. At this age, we develop the ability to remember that things we can not see are still there (like a toy hidden under a blanket). We also learn how to put two actions together in a sequence. (For example: remove the blanket then grab the toy.) As our understanding of our surroundings grows we are better able to remember things and link them to other things we are familiar with.


For example, by age 3 children can remember two rules and act according to those rules. This could be something like red goes here, blue goes there. Our memory continues to develop and allow us to play games like hide and go seek. Think of the memory required to play hide and seek: search varying locations and thinking of good places to hide, remember where you looked, then explore other locations.


As children get older, they are better able to remember how to play the game well. A big memory growth spurt often happens around age 14, and by age 15 we have close to adult maturity levels of working memory.


Inhibitory Control

Adults are able to have consistent self-control and provide situationally appropriate responses (at least ideally). This skill really begins to bloom around 6 months of age when we start to have very basic ability to control our behavior.


For example, a baby is able to not touch something if they are told not to. As they get closer to one year old, they begin to maintain focus despite distractions during brief delays in a task. They also become better at regulating their emotions and knowing to not say everything that comes to their mind. By only 7 years, children are near adult skill level when it comes to ignoring irrelevant, peripheral stimuli and focusing on the central stimulus, but switching between two things can be very difficult.


Planning and decision making also comes into play. Until age 16, the pros of a decision or action typically is given more weight than the cons, but by age 19 there becomes a more even balance between pros and cons in the decision-making process. We continue to develop self-control, such as flexibly switching between a central focus and peripheral stimuli, and planning skills until adulthood. (and lets be real, it’s a lifelong process!)


Cognitive Flexibility

We adults are able to revise actions and plans in response to changing circumstances. Within the first year, babies begin to do this as well. We develop the ability to seek alternate methods to retrieve objects beyond directly reaching for what’s in view.


Between the ages of 2- 5, we learn to shift actions according to changing rules (e.g., take shoes off at home, leave them on at school, put on boots for rain). Young children also tend to get fixed on one thing and their own perspective. They have difficulty changing the way they think to acknowledge others’ feelings or take into account other perspectives of a situation.


For example, if they are hungry and candy seems like the best way to satisfy their hunger but you think a carrot is a better snack they will likely throw a fit when they don’t get their way. As they get older, they learn that your snack choice has its merits and they can change their mind without getting upset. It takes time for kids to learn how to step back and imagine the world differently than what seems most important to them. Who can blame them! As adults we still need to practice this.


Around age 13 is often when large improvements are seen in our abilities to switch focus and adapt to changing rules, but like all of our other executive function skills, they continue to progress until our mid twenties.



What does all this mean for you?

The developmental process in our children’s brains is quite informative when you understand how it progresses. It allows us to better understand their skills sets and adjust our expectations so that they are developmentally appropriate. As long as progress is being made in these areas there is typically no need to worry about your child.


App Tip:

At HelloJoey, we weave explanations about executive function development into our kits so you can look at it from a practical point of view. “Homework: From Hassle to Happy” provides insights and tips about how to help improve your child’s executive function skills especially when related to homework. Go check it out.

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