What Are Executive Function Skills?

Understanding Executive Function Skills

Executive Function is a set of cognitive skills that help students (and adults) plan ahead, stay organized, manage thoughts and behaviors, and stay focused on a task. These self-management skills are crucial for students in achieving their goals both in the classroom and in everyday life. Executive Function skills are developed over time and can be improved with practice.

As the demands  of school increase each year, having well developed Executive Function skills will enable students to be more effective in school. Students who have been diagnosed with ADHD or other learning differences often have Executive Function challenges. However, not all students who struggle in this area have a formal diagnosis. By providing children with the support they need, we can help them develop the Executive Function skills they need to succeed in school, work, and life.

Strong EF Skills Are The Key to Academic Success

"When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development."
--Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

What Executive Function skills do students need?

Students are expected to have well developed Executive Function skills by the time they reach high school, but unfortunately these critical life skills are not typically taught in elementary school or middle school. With expert guidance and structure, students can learn to effectively manage themselves so that they are equipped for taking on challenges in school or in life. Consistent academic performance requires stamina which is built on a foundation of solid Executive Function skills.

  • Time management
  • Organizing thoughts and materials
  • Paying attention
  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Getting started (task initiation)
  • Staying on track
  • Remembering what to do and when to do it
  • Problem solving
  • Self-reflection
  • Managing emotions and impulses

Executive Function Skills by Age

To help you better understand the typical development of executive function skills in children, we've put together a breakdown of EF skills by age group. Please keep in mind that every child is different and, although this outlined list is a helpful guide, every child will progress are their own pace.

Elementary School (Ages 5 - 10)

Children in elementary school are developing emerging skills that are foundational building blocks for future development. Examples of these include:

  • Learning to pay attention
  • Learning to control their behavior
  • Following simple sets of directions
  • Use their working memory recall information and apply it to their current situation

Get comprehensive information about executive function in elementary school students.

Middle School (Ages 11 - 13)

Children who successfully develop impulse control, the ability to follow directions and focus their attention go on to develop more cognitively intensive executive function skills in middle school. The next level of development includes milestones such as:

  • Learning to think and plan ahead
  • Planning and problem solving
  • Develop self-reflection skills to help them take ownership of new habits
  • Following daily routines

Get comprehensive information about executive function in middle school students.

High School (Ages 14 - 18)

In high school, students are beginning to turn the corner with developing executive functioning skills that will support them in their adult years. More advanced skills at this stage look like:

  • Learning to think and behave with flexibility
  • Adapting to shifting expectations and rules
  • Collaborating with peers to complete projects
  • Learn how to study and take tests effectively

Get comprehensive information about executive function in high school students.

College (Ages 19+)

Once a child moves into adulthood, they should continue to develop their executive function skills throughout their lives. Even after the age of 18, a person's brain will continue to develop and they will continue to adapt to new challenges and 

  • Practice methods to cope with test anxiety and stress
  • Learn how to get work started and persist with challenging work
  • Develop systems to start and complete various tasks and projects
  • Learn and apply strategies to stay on task and maintain attention

Get comprehensive information about executive function in high school students.

How Are Your Child's Executive Function Skills?

Take our assessment to learn which Executive Function areas are strengths or challenges for your middle school or high school child.

You'll rate your child's abilities in the areas of time management, planning and completing work, managing emotions, organization, and managing their behavior.

Take our coaching level assessment now

Our Executive Function coaches are carefully screened, highly trained, and ready to work face to face online or in person with students who are experiencing challenges in any of the areas listed above. Beyond BookSmart is the nationally recognized expert in helping students become more effective learners. We have helped thousands of students gain the skills they need through our revolutionary approach to changing habits and our comprehensive database with over 375 tools and strategies. Ready to learn more? See how we work with students in our one-on-one virtual executive function coaching program.

Parent and Student Testimonials

Beyond BookSmart was wonderful. They were able to get through to our daughter, get her organized, and get her back on track. Now, she is going to a great college and is fully prepared.
Adam, father of high school senior, Belmont, MA