Parents often ask us about their children’s Executive Function development. Is my child on track with her peers? Is it unusual that a 4th grader has a poor sense of time? Will my son manage his emotions better by the time he gets to high school? The short answer is that each child develops Executive Function skills on his or her own timeline throughout childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The more nuanced answer is that there are several factors that influence a child’s Executive Function development. For our purposes, we can divide them into internal (within the child) and external (in the child’s environment) factors, to give you a better sense of how complex this topic can be.
Internal Factors that Impact Executive Function Development
Internal factors that can affect the development of a child's Executive Function skills include intellectual disabilities, struggles with physical or mental health, or learning differences such as ADHD (a common diagnosis in the students we coach). Recent research suggests that the brains of children with ADHD may mature about three years behind their typical peers (Shaw, et al, 2007). Although there are no differences in how their brains mature; it’s more a matter of when. So, you can see why it’s not surprising to us when we see a bright 13 year old with ADHD who has a lot of trouble planning and prioritizing.
Environmental Factors that Affect Executive Function Development
Environmental factors that can influence a child’s Executive Function development include economic hardship, abusive or neglectful caregivers, violence in the home or community, chaotic surroundings, and poor access to nutritious food. Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child notes that toxic stress from environmental factors can actually alter a child’s brain and disrupt normal development of Executive Functioning.
Building a Foundation for Executive Function Development
It’s helpful to think about the foundation that Executive Function skills are built upon: adequate sleep, good nutrition, safe surroundings, and a pain-free body. If any of these foundation elements are missing, a child’s higher level cognitive skills can be at risk. Have you ever tried to lead a presentation at work on 2 hours of sleep? Or pay bills with a raging migraine? Or maybe plan all the details of a family vacation when your stomach is rumbling with hunger? When a child’s foundation is shaky in any of these areas, the first priority is shoring up and stabilizing themsleves before any substantive progress on skills -- such as impulse control -- can occur.
If it seems to you that good Executive Function progress hinges upon a host of both internal and external influences, you’re correct. But the good news is that parents, caregivers, and educators can take specific steps to foster growth of these skills in all children.
According to Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, “Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.”
Executive Function Skills Are Developed Over Time
Perhaps the most important environmental factor in Executive Function growth is the fact that children learn these skills through experience, cumulatively, over time. Some children can learn skills such as time management by trial and error. When they have a bad outcome, they recalibrate and change their approach. Many others learn best when given explicit strategies to gain awareness of time and to stay on schedule. Either way, if children are not given opportunities to practice and use skills such as organization and planning, we can’t expect them to be independent planners and organizers when they reach young adulthood.
Shaw, P., Eckstrand, K., Sharp, W., Blumenthal, J., Lerch, J.P., Greenstein, D., Clasen, L., Evans, A., Giedd, J. & Rappaport, J.L. (2007). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci, 104:19649-19654.
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University:
photo credit: Happy Girl Hopscotch in Strawberry Free Creative Commons via photopin (license)
Download our infographic, featuring a timeline of typical Executive Function development.