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.
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:
Executive function skills are present in our behaviors:
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.
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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.
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