What Are Executive Functions and Why Should We All Want to Know?

by Meghan Fitzgerald

Who is not keen to help the children they love become competent, capable and joyful learners? The more we learn about the brain and incorporate that knowledge with wisdom we've gleaned about how children develop, the more certain skills rise to top of mind. For example, we think a lot about creativity, persistence, and problem solving. Another set of skills that continues to emerge as an important piece in the puzzle are executive functions. But, what are executive functions? And how are they relevant to young minds in the making? 

So, what are executive functions? 

Essentially, executive functions are a set of skills, including things like working memory, focus, and emotional regulation. They are the set of skills that work together to help us manage our attention, manage our emotions and manage our behavior. This, in turn, allows us to navigate through life, calling upon intentional action rather than impulsive action. Just think of how critical this is for children in their play, in more formal learning settings and the world at large.

One helpful way to think about executive functions is as the set of skills that work as the air traffic control of the brain. Executive functions manage the flow of incoming information and outgoing behavior, keeping all of the brain process required working together smoothly and helping us behave in a way that allows us to achieve goals. 


So, how does this help our children learn? It helps in many essential ways, including:

  • The better we can attend to our environment, the more information we can actually take in and the more we can learn.

  • The more we’re able to block out the many distractions in our environment, the more we can take in information that really matters.

  • When we can be in control of our emotional response to new information, we can gain time and mental space to assess new information and then evaluate it in relation to what we have already learned.

  • By having emotional control in a situation, we’re able to make better informed social choices, helping us form stronger relationships and collaborate more effectively.

  • When we have the skills to reflect on new information, we not only choose actions that are more appropriate and goal oriented, but we can be more free, creative and innovative in our thinking and our actions — which is exactly what makes humans so amazing!

Research continues to support just how important these skills are to success. Leading brain researcher, Adele Diamond writes, “If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions — working memory and inhibition — actually predict success better than IQ tests.”

So much of our time in education is spent on literacy and math, and on measuring what knowledge children have accumulated. But we are learning that it’s just as important, if not more, that we measure what kids are able to do with what they know.

The capacities that develop in the earliest years may be harder to measure on tests of kindergarten readiness than abilities like number and letter recognition, but they are precisely the skills, closely related to executive functions, that researchers have recently determined to be so valuable in kindergarten and beyond.
— Paul Tough, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

How and when do these skills start to develop?

Executive functions are supported by a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain develops over time and is used to integrate many other parts of the brain, each that specialize in a certain function. That is where the “executive” part comes from—a manager who coordinates and enables many different functions to work together smoothly. [If, like me, you find the brain fascinating, you will enjoy learning more from this marvelous video from Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child.]

Although we are born wired and ready to acquire these skills, we actually develop them over time, through our experiences—starting in infancy and continuing into early adulthood. As Adele Diamond writes, “An immature prefrontal cortex is capable of supporting a lot of the functions it’s supposed to support. So even babies, toddlers and kindergarten children are capable of exercising executive functions to some extent.” Learning a bit about how young children exercise these emerging, long-term skills can transform our capacity to support that process.

How can I help my child learn these skills?

The great news is that these skills are learned, and adults can play a role in helping children to learn them. Each child brings his or her own strengths and needs to learning these skills, and the journey is unique to each child. If we are attuned, we can help create an environment that gives each child opportunities to develop these skills in their own way. We can also model and continue to hone these skills ourselves—something we all need to do, especially in what can feel like an increasingly overloaded and stressful world.

Because these skills develop together over time, it can feel daunting to know how to isolate any one of them in search of a starting place. But the more we learn, the more focus and self control emerge as true foundation skills within this set of executive functions, giving us a perfect place to start. This is why we list “Focus” among our list of the skills our program targets—a set of skills we believe kids need to become ready to learn, ready to thrive and ready for anything. And, it’s why we’ve chosen Focus and Self Control as the focus skill for our Fall, 2018 season. 

Because these skills are so crucial, this post is the first in a a series of blog posts dedicated to helping us do just that. Click below to keep learning and reading more from this series: