Executive functioning skills are a necessary part of cognitive development, including speech, language, literacy, and pragmatics. Being able to learn, generalize, and carryover skills all require executive functioning.
What is executive functioning?
Executive functions are a set of skills that we use every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. It is the “management system of the brain,” controlled by the frontal lobe. At a young age, children use these skills to learn, socialize, and conduct daily activities. As children get older, they learn more complex skills, such as time management and task initiation. These skills allow us to set goals, plan, get things done, manage our emotions, focus, follow directions, and so much more.
Types of Executive Functions
ATTENTION: Attentional control begins at infancy as babies learn to direct their gaze and focus on items in their environment. As children get older, they can extend their concentration for extended periods. Teens and adults can follow through on projects even with distractions.
WORKING MEMORY: This is the ability to remember and recall information. It involves how we comprehend information from our environment and use it to complete a task.
INHIBITION: This is the ability to control one’s behavior to avoid harming themselves and others. Impulse control begins to develop in toddlers and continually improves throughout childhood.
PLANNING: Planning involves identifying future events and setting goals to complete them. One must analyze the steps needed to complete the task ahead of time.
ORGANIZATION: Children begin to learn organization skills early in child development by understanding categories in their environment, such as sizes and colors. Toddlers learn to sort items by form, function, and class. Teens and adults with good organization skills can create and maintain organizational systems and re-organize if needed.
TASK INITIATION: Task initiation is the ability to generate ideas, solve problems, and respond to tasks. As children get older, they can independently start and complete tasks of longer durations.
PROBLEM-SOLVING: Problem-solving is the ability to identify, describe, and generate solutions to a problem. These skills begin to develop in babies and toddlers through play. As children get older, problem-solving includes increases in decision-making, turn-taking, and brainstorming solutions.
TIME MANAGEMENT: Children first begin to learn time management skills with time concepts. Teenagers develop these skills with a greater ability to estimate time and reach deadlines. In adults, well-developed time management skills allow them to find and implement tools to manage time more efficiently and adjust schedules.
FLEXIBILITY: Flexibility is our ability to tolerate unexpected changes and adjust to them. Toddlers begin to accept more changes in activities, usually by engaging in dramatic and imaginative play with others. As children and teenagers participate in organized activities and routines, they experience unpredictable events, which allow them to practice flexibility and respond in the moment.
EMOTIONAL CONTROL: Emotional control involves understanding one’s feelings and using strategies to manage their emotions. Toddlers and young children begin to identify and understand their emotions and the emotions of others. This develops as children get older with understanding more complex emotions and learning to control different emotions.
METACOGNITION: This is the ability to self-monitor our behavior and make changes. It’s one of the more complex executive functioning skills. Children begin to develop metacognition at a young age through imitation. Adults can check their work for mistakes, monitor their performance, and work to achieve bigger goals.
Executive Functioning Development
The critical foundations of executive functioning are attention, inhibition, and working memory. Every child is different, which will impact needs, development, and order of skills addressed. Generally speaking, addressing attention comes first – with perceptions of the environment, perception of teacher and self, redirecting attention, inhibition, and then working memory.
You can find more about specific milestones and what to expect for executive functioning development from ages two through adults in the Speech-Language Handouts.