What is Executive Function in Child Development

Childhood development occurs naturally and at an extremely fast rate. When wondering what is executive function in child development, this breakdown of executive functioning skills development will help explain how children develop in attention, impulsivity, attention, and other executive function skills.

As a newborn is held and snuggled, development is happening. One aspect of development that occurs throughout childhood and even as an adult are executive functioning skills. When you consider what is executive functioning skills, you might think that the development of these essential skills happen later in childhood and in the teen years. However, the baseline of executive functioning skills occurs in infancy! In this article, you will find information on the development of executive functioning skills as well as identifying red flags for problems with executive functioning skill development.

When wondering what is executive function in child development, this breakdown of executive functioning skills development will help parents and teachers understand how children develop in attention, impulsivity, attention, and other executive function skills.

Executive Functioning Skills in Child Development

Studies have shown that executive functioning development in childhood occurs in different contexts for different age ranges and in a general process. Executive functioning skills are a set of abilities that are essential for thinking through and completing tasks. They are the skills that allow us to problem solve, initiate and complete tasks, and sustain attention through the completion of a task. Executive functioning skills are necessary for tasks such as getting dressed and ready for the day, completing homework, or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They are needed for every multi-step activity we do!

Here are more executive functioning resources to fill your therapy toolbox!

Here are strategies to help the adult with executive function disorder. Many of these tips and strategies are great for teens as well. 

There are many sub-areas that make up executive functioning skills.

Executive function skills are present in our cognition:
Working memory
Time management

Executive function skills are present in our behaviors:
Response inhibition
Emotional control
Sustained attention
Task initiation
Goal persistence

You can read more about executive functioning skills as well as find activities to promote executive functioning skills here on The OT Toolbox.

You might be interested in games to help improve executive function skills.

Development of Executive Functioning Skills

Aspects of executive functioning skills are developed from a very young age.  The skills are then extended and further developed throughout childhood and into the teen years. Executive functioning skills continue to develop in adulthood.

Executive Functioning Skill Development in Infancy

The following executive functioning skills begin development at 6-12 months of age:
Response inhibition- This skill is not an obvious one, but includes “stranger danger” when a baby responds to one adult but not another.
Working Memory- Babies begin to recognize familiar faces. They recall and remember those familiar faces utilizing working memory. They are able to store that information and retrieve it when they see a face. Attachment that begins in the infancy stages of life also are influenced by working memory. Favorite toys and soothing items such as preferred pacifiers, blankets, and soothing positions are influenced by working memory.
Emotional Control- While it is true that infants do not have the ability to control their emotions, this is a skill that is just beginning to develop as babies are able to be settled down by certain individuals they are familiar with. Attachment and responding to one adult but not another is influenced by the initial development of emotional control as infants feel safe and loved by members of their family.
Attention- This executive functioning skill begins as an infant is able to make eye contact and follow objects with their eyes. Attention is developed greatly in the first year. Consider the length of time a 12 month old can sustain attention on a preferred toys in in play.

Executive Functioning Skill Development from 12-24 months

Flexibility is a skill that develops greatly during these months. While the ability to inhibit impulses, sustain attention, control emotions, and utilize flexibility in thought are very low at this age, they do develop in relation by the second year of life. Working Memory, emotional control, attention, task initiation, and goal persistence develop throughout the second year of life. Much of this development occurs through play.

Executive Functioning Skill Development in the Preschool Years

In preschool, children are able to run simple errands using working memory, sustained attention, and goal persistence. They are able to clean a room with help, clean up their plate, get dressed, and begin to inhibit behaviors. Preschool aged children can understand and recall instructions such as “Don’t touch the stove”, “We don’t push”, “We share toys”, etc.

Executive Functioning Skill Development in Kindergarten through Second Grade

In these years of schooling, children are able to follow 2-3 step errands such as cleaning a room independently, simple chores, and multiple step grooming and dressing tasks.

Executive functioning skill development in grades 3-5

In this stage of childhood, children are able to complete multiple step tasks and maintain sustained attention. They are able to read and follow chapter books that require extended working memory and pick up on projects that require sustained attention and goal persistence. Flexibility is further improved.

Executive functioning skill development in grades 6-8

In this stage, a child’s working memory develops as they are able to complete more complex tasks.They are able to perform multiple step math and word problems toward the end of this age range. Critical thinking improves between the ages of 6 and 8. Students exhibit increasing impulse control in the school environment and other places where rules are in place.


Executive function skill development in grades 9-12

Executive functioning skills are increasingly developed in the high school years. Emotional regulation, response inhibition, goal persistence, flexibility, sustained attention are all related to the behavioral response of persisting, initiating, and completing tasks. We can see a big difference between the high school freshman  and the high school senior in behavior and all of the these executive functioning skills relate to behaviors and the act of “doing” skills. In this stage, students typically demonstrate and increasing ability to plan and complete multiple step tasks while generally performing less risky behavior as they progress toward the higher end of this stage.

Executive functioning skills related to cognition are also greatly impacted during these years. Planning, organization, time management, and metacognition are developed and then refined in these years.

Executive functioning skill development age 18-20

Executive functioning skills are greatly developed during the ages of 18 through 20. Skills enable the ability to maintain a working schedule and perform the requirements of jobs, friendship, and family. Task initiation, persistence, emotional regulation, metacognition, planning, organization, and goal persistence are greatly refined. In this stage we can see the student heading off to college who needs to incorporate these skills independently in order to multi-task and complete the requirements of a job, schooling, or both.

Executive skill development in adulthood

As adults, we continue to refine executive functioning skills. While distractions are a fact of life, we are able to maintain sustained attention while fending off those distractions. We are able to maintain several schedules, a job, tasks of the home, responsibilities, and those of children and family. In this stage of life, we are able to to understand and seek out tools for making executive functioning skills easier such as planners, organization strategies, minimizing of distractions, calendars, etc.

Looking to build executive functioning skills?  Follow our new Executive Functioning Toolbox Facebook Page for strategies, ideas, and tools to help build executive function.

More tools for addressing attention in kids

There are so many strategies to address attention in kids and activities that can help address attention needs. One tactic that can be a big help is analyzing precursors to behaviors related to attention and addressing underlying needs. 

The Attention and Sensory Workbook can be a way to do just that. 

The Attention and Sensory Workbook is a free printable resource for parents, teachers, and therapists. It is a printable workbook and includes so much information on the connection between attention and sensory needs. 

Here’s what you can find in the Attention and Sensory Workbook: 

  • Includes information on boosting attention through the senses
  • Discusses how sensory and learning are connected
  • Provides movement and sensory motor activity ideas
  • Includes workbook pages for creating movement and sensory strategies to improve attention

little more about the Attention and Sensory Workbook: 

Sensory processing is the ability to register, screen, organize, and interpret information from our senses and the environment. This process allows us to filter out some unnecessary information so that we can attend to what is important. Kids with sensory challenges often time have difficulty with attention as a result.

It’s been found that there is a co-morbidity of 40-60% of ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder. This workbook is an actionable guide to help teachers, therapists, and parents to help kids boost attention and focus in the classroom by mastering sensory processing needs. 

You will find information on the sensory system and how it impacts attention and learning. There are step-by-step strategies for improving focus, and sensory-based tips and tricks that will benefit the whole classroom.

The workbook provides tactics to address attention and sensory processing as a combined strategy and overall function. There are charts for activities, forms for assessment of impact, workbook pages for accommodations, and sensory strategy forms.

Grab the Attention and Sensory Workbook below.


Attention and sensory workbook activities for improving attention in kids
When wondering what is executive function in child development, this breakdown of executive functioning skills development will help parents and teachers understand how children develop in attention, impulsivity, attention, and other executive function skills.

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    Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.