Parenting Tips

Understanding Executive Function and How To Enhance It With Children

Understanding Executive Function and How To Enhance It With Children
07 Mar 2024

As parents, we're constantly intrigued by the development and growth of our children. One aspect of child development that's gaining increasing attention is executive function. 

Understanding what executive function entails, recognizing signs of challenges, identifying possible causes, and discovering activities to enhance it can profoundly impact our children's future success. 

In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the intricacies of executive function and explore ways to nurture and develop it in children from 6 months to 7 years old.

What is Executive Function?

Executive function refers to a set of cognitive processes that enable individuals to regulate their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions in order to achieve goals, solve problems, and adapt to changing situations. 

It involves a range of mental skills that help individuals manage tasks, organize information, prioritize actions, and control impulses. Executive function encompasses abilities such as:

  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Working memory
  • Inhibitory control
  • Planning
  • Problem-solving

These skills play a crucial role in various aspects of daily life, including academic achievement, social interactions, decision-making, and emotional regulation.

Executive function abilities typically undergo rapid development during early childhood and continue to mature through adolescence and into the early twenties. While some children may initially exhibit delays compared to their peers, many gradually catch up as they grow older. 

Consequently, teenagers and young adults often experience fewer challenges in managing executive function tasks compared to their younger counterparts.

Signs of Executive Function Challenges

Difficulty with executive function can manifest in various ways and affect individuals differently. These challenges often resemble the symptoms of ADHD, as ADHD involves difficulties with executive function.

Individuals grappling with executive function may have these symptoms:

  • Struggle to initiate or complete tasks.
  • Experience challenges in prioritizing tasks effectively.
  • Forget information shortly after hearing or reading it.
  • Have difficulty following instructions or sequences of steps.
  • Experience anxiety or distress when faced with changes in rules or routines.
  • Find it challenging to shift focus from one task to another.
  • Become excessively emotional and fixate on specific issues.
  • Have difficulty organizing their thoughts coherently.
  • Struggle to keep track of their belongings or maintain organization.
  • Experience difficulties managing their time effectively.

Difficulty with executive function is not considered a specific diagnosis or learning disability. However, it is commonly observed in individuals who learn and think differently.

These difficulties can impede learning progress, but they should not be misconstrued as indicators of laziness or lack of intelligence. Individuals who struggle with executive function are just as capable and diligent as their peers.

Possible Causes of Executive Function Challenges

There are several potential causes that can contribute to executive function challenges in individuals:

A. Brain Development

Executive function skills rely on the development and functioning of specific regions of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex. Any disruptions or delays in the maturation of these brain areas can lead to difficulties in executive function.

B. Genetics

Research suggests that genetic factors play a significant role in the development of executive function skills. Individuals may inherit genetic predispositions that affect the structure and function of brain regions involved in executive control.

C. Environmental Factors

Experiences and environmental influences can impact the development of executive function skills. Adverse childhood experiences, exposure to chronic stress, socioeconomic factors, and chaotic living environments can all contribute to executive function challenges.

D. Neurological Conditions

Certain neurological conditions, such as ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other neurodevelopmental disorders, are commonly associated with executive function difficulties. These conditions can affect the structure and function of the brain regions responsible for executive control.

E. Medical Conditions

Some medical conditions, including certain genetic syndromes, epilepsy, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases, can affect executive function abilities by disrupting brain function or causing structural abnormalities.

F. Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic brain injury, as well as exposure to trauma or abuse, can impair executive function skills by causing direct damage to brain structures involved in executive control or by triggering neurological and psychological changes.

G. Substance Abuse

Substance abuse, particularly during critical periods of brain development, can interfere with executive function abilities by disrupting neurotransmitter systems, impairing cognitive function, and altering brain structure and function.

Enhancing Executive Function in Children

Activities to enhance and practice executive function in children aged 6 months to 7 years old can be tailored to their developmental stage and abilities. Here are some age-appropriate activities you can try to enhance the executive function:

1. Infants (6-12 months)

In your children’s beginning age, engage in simple games such as peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek to foster social interaction and build early communication skills. These interactive activities not only entertain infants but also encourage bonding between parents and their little ones. 

Through games like peek-a-boo, infants begin to understand the concept of object permanence and develop anticipation, which lays the foundation for cognitive development.

Provide infants with safe toys and objects for exploratory play. Offering items with different textures, shapes, and colors stimulates sensory exploration and encourages motor development.

2. Toddlers (1-3 years)

Entering their first year, try introducing building blocks and puzzles to toddlers fosters problem-solving skills and spatial awareness as they manipulate shapes and sizes. These activities enhance fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, laying the groundwork for cognitive development.

Engaging toddlers in imitation play, such as house or cooking scenarios, stimulates creativity and expands vocabulary. Pretend play encourages critical thinking and social skills, enriching their understanding of the world.

Involving toddlers in simple chores like tidying toys instills responsibility and task completion. These activities teach valuable life skills such as organization and cooperation while fostering independence and a sense of accomplishment.

3. Preschoolers (3-5 years)

At their 3-5 years, you can encourage them to play board games that involve turn-taking, following rules, and strategic thinking, such as Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders.

Encourage art projects that require planning, organization, and fine motor skills, such as drawing, painting, or crafting with clay. Also remember to provide opportunities for outdoor play and exploration, allowing preschoolers to navigate obstacles, develop gross motor skills, and practice risk assessment.

4. Early School-Age (5-7 years)

Next, engage children in memory games like matching or Simon Says to enhance working memory and attentional control. These activities challenge children to remember patterns and sequences, strengthening their cognitive abilities.

Encourage children to develop their storytelling skills by creating and narrating their own stories. This fosters imagination, language development, and the ability to sequence events coherently. Storytelling also promotes creativity and self-expression in children.

Enroll children in structured activities such as sports teams, music lessons, or martial arts classes to instill discipline, goal-setting, and perseverance. Participation in these activities encourages children to set and achieve objectives, develop teamwork skills, and cultivate resilience in the face of challenges.

Need Help in Developing Executive Function on Children?

Selecting the right early childhood education plays a pivotal role in enhancing children's executive function skills and preparing them for future academic success. At Rockstar Academy, we pride ourselves on offering top-tier early childhood education programs designed to nurture every aspect of a child's development. 

Our carefully crafted curriculum focuses on academic, fine motor, social-emotional, gross motor, and cognitive skills, providing a comprehensive foundation for primary education. With curriculum-based workbooks available in both English and Bahasa, covering a diverse range of subjects, children receive a well-rounded educational experience tailored to their needs. 

Plus, their offer of a free trial class makes it easy for parents and children alike to explore the enriching benefits of these programs firsthand. Invest in your child's future today by empowering them with the tools they need to succeed academically, socially, and beyond.


1. Are executive function skills innate or can they be developed?

While some aspects of executive function may have a genetic component, they can be nurtured and strengthened through practice, experience, and environmental factors.

2. At what age should I start focusing on executive function development in my child?

Executive function skills begin to develop in infancy and continue to mature throughout childhood. It's never too early to start fostering these skills through age-appropriate activities and interactions.

3. How can I differentiate between typical developmental challenges and potential executive function difficulties in my child?

Persistent challenges that significantly interfere with daily functioning, learning, or social interactions may indicate underlying executive function difficulties. Consulting with a pediatrician or developmental specialist can provide valuable insights and guidance.