Executive function in children ‐ What Parents Need to Know

Learn why Executive Function matters to Your Preschooler


“How do I know that my child is developing correctly and able to function independently?” The answer lies in his executive functioning skills.

Parents often end up on extreme sides of the spectrum. Some expect too much from their children. Others end up becoming overly helpful. Often, all our children need is time to learn to do different tasks independently as they grow.
Every child is different. There are no clear cut “age appropriate” skills at any level—instead, meet your child where he or she currently is. To do so, consider the types of executive functioning skills that your child should develop throughout their lives.
In this comprehensive guide, you will learn what executive functions are all about, why they’re important, and how you can develop them in your children.
Executive functions are mental or cognitive ‘shortcuts’ that help us to get things done on a daily basis. We use them for planning, organising, setting goals, memorising, managing time, and finishing what we start. Executive function skills are essential for success in school and in life, and play a crucial role in your child’s development.
In this comprehensive guide, you will learn what executive functions are all about, why they’re important, and how you can develop them in your children.

What Are Executive Functioning Skills?

“For every minute spent in organising, an hour is earned.” – Benjamin Franklin.

Executive functioning skills are skills a child needs to organise themselves (and others), execute and perform tasks, and solve problems. They are the mental processes that help us to plan, focus our attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

These are everyday skills that help us to be successful in life.

Executive function skills do not develop overnight. A child learns them at a much quicker rate between the ages of three to five. A spike follows during early adolescence, and another in early adulthood.

Babies develop executive skills from as young as a few months old! They rely on familiar smells and voices to soothe them when they’re cranky, which is the emergence of emotional control.

As they grow to be a toddler, they start to recognise familiar faces and develop a preference for certain toys. This is a sign of their working memory developing.

Between the ages of three to five is when it gets really interesting and fun as you watch your preschooler try to explain to you all the reasons why you should pick him up from school early tomorrow.

Here, they slowly develop the skills of negotiation, compromise and persuasion which they practise not only on their friends and classmates, but on their parents and siblings as well!

You’ll also see little signs of shifting — this executive functioning skill can be seen when your child tells you that they want their milk, and proceed to bring the milk bottle to you at the same time so you can make their milk for them immediately. There’s no reason to tell them to ‘wait a while, darling’ anymore!

Let’s check out more examples of executive skills in children!

Examples Of Executive Function In Younger Children

The progression of a child’s executive skills is an amazing journey. You watch as your child becomes more articulate, says things he probably shouldn’t say aloud in public, nods his head wisely as you explain to him why his latest request for a toy is not going to be fulfilled, and eventually, asks if he can go visit his friends at their houses (yes, even at the unripe young ages of three and four!)

Here are just some of the executive functioning skills you can look out for as your child grows in age.

  1. Attention and focus: Your child is eventually able to pay attention and focus on a task or activity for a sustained period of time, despite being bored or fatigued.
  2. Time management: Your child learns to be more aware of the time and can track it while doing his tasks. He is able to finish a series of little tasks or one bigger, specific task within an allocated period of time.
  1. Working memory: This is your child’s ability to remember and use information when required, such as remembering a phone number or following a set of instructions. Children as young as three or four are able to remember emergency numbers, such as 911, or even their parents’ phone numbers in some cases.
  2. Attention and focus: Your child is eventually able to pay attention and focus on a task or activity for a sustained period of time, despite being bored or fatigued.
  3. Time management: Your child learns to be more aware of the time and can track it while doing his tasks. He is able to finish a series of little tasks or one bigger, specific task within an allocated period of time.
  4. Working memory: This is your child’s ability to remember and use information when required, such as remembering a phone number or following a set of instructions. Children as young as three or four are able to remember emergency numbers, such as 911, or even their parents’ phone numbers in some cases.
  5. Problem solving: Your child is willing to work through a problem and find a solution to it. He also has flexible thinking which allows him to devise alternate routes to reach a solution. For example, a boy that walks to school on a daily basis comes across a road closure. He is then able to plan a different route that will get him to school on time.
  6. Decision making: Your child is able to weigh options and make a choice. For example, he can either clean up his toys or finish his meal properly in order to be able to go to the playground.
  7. Planning and organisation: Your child can create a plan and arrange to-do tasks in a logical order as they progress from the playgroup phase to the nursery phase, and eventually to the kindergarten phase.
  8. Self regulation: Your child learns (at times) to control emotions, behaviours, and impulses, and tries to understand your reasoning when he cannot get what he wants.
  9. Inhibitory control: Your child tries to stay on task despite distractions and is able to focus to a certain extent (before giving up after 10 minutes!)
  10. Cognitive flexibility: Your child has the ability to adjust to new situations or change course when necessary – such as changing schools, moving houses, and meeting new people.
  11. Shifting: Your child is able to move from one project or task to another easily.

Why Are Executive Functioning Skills Important in Child Development?

Executive functioning skills help your child to be more independent and to meet the challenges of childhood, formal school, adolescence, and eventually adult and professional lives. These higher order skills initiate critical thinking, emotional control, and promote empathy, responsibility and accountability.

But wait, you may ask. Isn’t the ability to think measured by our Intelligence Quotient (IQ)?

The difference between executive functions and IQ is this: A person with a high IQ may be capable of understanding or discussing complex subjects. However, he may not be able to turn this information into something productive — for instance, to solve a personal or professional problem.

It’s not that this person isn’t smart enough. Rather, it’s because he doesn’t have the executive functioning skills to gear his efforts towards achieving a positive outcome.

How does this apply to preschoolers?

From our experience, children who are academically strong but lack executive functioning skills often find it challenging to manage themselves in the classroom, playground, field trips, or other educational settings.

Here are just a few instances of how executive skills can help your child both inside and outside of school:

– Make new friends
– Be able to start a task and see it through
– Remember and use information as and when needed
– Own up to mistakes (if the consequences aren’t too scary!)
– Be able to make decisions based on surrounding factors such as his friends, the outcome and how he feels about it
– Regulate emotions and behaviours to communicate more effectively with others, and
– Understand the value of time

Strong executive functions are also linked to better social skills, language development, and overall brain development. In short, they help us to lead productive and meaningful lives.

As our children grow into teens and young adults, their ability to think and plan ahead as well as see a task through helps them to stay responsible and accountable, forming the core of their personal as well as career success — in short, everything we want our children to have!

How Does Executive Functioning Skills Affect Learning In Preschoolers?

Executive function skills develop over time. Rapid development of skills takes place between the ages of three to five and then from six to eleven. Naturally we would not expect a three year old to possess the executive skills that a five year old has. Nor should we expect a seven year old to be able to make decisions as well as an eleven year old would.

As parents, we may sometimes compare our children to their peers (who hasn’t?) and wonder why our children are lacking in skills that are already prominent in other children of the same age.

It is important to remember that every child is unique. We should always meet them where they are and go from there, rather than set rigid milestones that they need to meet—regardless of how Mrs So and So’s daughter of the same age is doing!

To appreciate if your preschooler is having challenges with their executive functioning skills, you should have a sense of the types of development you can expect at various ages.

For example, rules are a huge thing in preschoolers aged two to five. This is when they learn the basics of dos and don’ts. They may eventually realise and remember that shoes should go on the shoe rack, and that used socks should go into the laundry bag.

Children between the ages of six and seven start to internalise time. They may begin to estimate how long a task will take them. Even though these skills are very new at this point, they are able to plan (however slightly) ahead and know roughly what a deadline is.

Here are a few examples of executive skills challenges in children and what you can expect as your child overcomes them.

  1. The inability to get out of the house and to school on time every morning.

    The child is able to wake up on time, pack his own school bag, and put on his school uniform with a little help.

  2. The inability to independently complete tasks that are allocated to them.

    The child is able to finish his tasks in time with very little nudging and reminders.

  3. Being easily distracted over the smallest things.

    The child can stay focused for a decent period of time (ten to fifteen minutes).

  4. Having a hard time following instructions involving the simplest tasks.

    The child understands instructions and asks for help when he needs it.

  5. Experiencing difficulty shifting, which impacts their daily activities.

    An example of shifting difficulty includes a child having issues moving from brushing his teeth to sitting down at the table for breakfast to putting his shoes on. He loses track of what he is doing, and ends up doing something completely different and unrelated to the initial task.

    The child is able to brush his teeth, sit down for breakfast, and remember his shoes as he is leaving the house with very little reminders.

  6. Misplacing or forgetting his belongings, such as bringing his water tumbler and pencil case to preschool, or coming out of the class without one or both of his items.

    The child remembers his belongings most of the time now.

  7. Experiencing difficulty in retaining information that is taught to him, leading to underperformance and early childhood stress.

    A common scenario may include him forgetting to prepare for his spelling test which is taking place the next day. He only remembers it in the morning after he wakes up, which leads to tears and tantrums about going to school.

    The child reports to you what he has to submit to the teacher the next day, what special clothes he has to wear, and what food you should be bringing for his class party.

As your child’s executive functioning skills become increasingly competent, they will be able to plan and act in ways that make them great classroom citizens, role models for others, and worthy friends.

Helping to Develop Your Child’s Executive Functioning Skills

Wish to play your part as a parent to develop your child’s executive functioning skills? There are many fun ways to do so!

Younger children flourish with support from parents and teachers when it comes to learning about rules, structures, and emotional control. Older children are naturally more independent and require a more hands-off approach.

Plan things in advance: Try to work with your child to do as many of their tasks as possible the night before. They include having the clothes laid out in advance, school bags packed correctly, and socks placed right next to their shoes. A good way to do this is to use a checklist.

Imaginary play: Your child is pretending to be a doctor, treating you or another family member who is pretending to be the patient. In order to fit into this role (or what he thinks a doctor’s role is), the child tries to exhibit the correct gestures and say the correct words, showing emotional and inhibitory control.

Group storytelling: A really fun way to promote executive skills is to have one member of the family start a story, with each family member adding to the story in turn. This way, your child pays attention to the story and makes up new plots that seem more relevant. This promotes focus, working memory and organising skills.

Provide structure and routines: Children thrive on routines — these can help to build executive skills. Set regular bedtimes, meal times, and homework times, and establish clear rules and expectations.

Set little reminders: Little notes that list out the things they need to do in the morning, such as brushing their teeth, changing, going down for breakfast and then putting their shoes on to go to school, can do wonders for their executive function improvement and confidence!

Repetitive songs: Letting your child listen to songs that repeat and then add on in length does wonders for their memory and focus! Songs such as Old McDonald’s, This Old Man and The Ants Go Marching are fun pieces to start off with!

Promote self-regulation: Help your child to develop self-regulation skills by giving them choices and helping them to understand the consequences of their actions. Encourage them to express their feelings in appropriate ways, and help them to cope with frustration and disappointment. Children with better self-regulation will naturally have fewer issues when it comes to social interaction with their peers.

Use rewards and incentives: Parents can use a designated reward chart and hang it in the homework area of the house. For example, every completed task or assignment gets them a star. Five stars will earn them a little gift. This ‘dangling carrot’ method helps to motivate your kid to have a focus in mind and to plan ahead.

Provide support and encouragement: Children need support and encouragement to develop their executive function skills. Praise your child for their efforts and accomplishments, and offer help and guidance patiently when needed, until mastery is achieved.

Top Activities To Boost Executive Function in Preschoolers

By now, you’ll have a better understanding of what executive functioning skills are in children and why they’re needed as part of growing up. You’ll be happy to know that nurturing these skills can be enjoyable too!

Here are a few fun ideas to boost your child’s executive skills in the comfort of your home:

Develop their life skills: Strengthening your child’s executive skills goes hand-in-hand with helping them to strengthen their life skills. Get them to start doing little tasks and slowly grow in independence as they acquire and master different essential life skills.

Puzzles and games: Puzzles and simple games that require planning and problem-solving can help your child to develop their executive skills. Examples include board games, card games, and jigsaw puzzles. Such activities help to develop your child’s ability to follow rules and order in a low-stress and fun way.

Sports and physical activities: Physical activities that require coordination and concentration can help your child to improve on their executive function skills. Physical activities allow your child to work as a team with other children, thereby exercising self-regulation.

It also goes without saying that sports give your child an outlet to release stress and anxiety, improve physical health, and boost happiness. Examples of such activities include running, playing ball, swimming, dancing, or gymnastics. More structured activities that promote a set routine and incorporate more self-discipline include martial arts, aerobic exercise, and soccer.

Art and music: Creative activities such as art and music can help your child to improve their concentration and problem-solving skills. Executive functioning skills are put into practice when they are drawing, playing the piano (or other musical instruments), focusing on reading notes, or just singing.

Cooking and baking: Cooking and baking require planning, organisation, and problem-solving skills. These activities can be a fun and engaging way for your child to learn to do a task from start to finish since cooking and baking recipes are usually broken down into little easy-to-follow steps!

Role playing: Role-play learning activities, such as dress-up, role-playing, and pretend play, can help your child to practise decision-making, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills. To participate, your child needs to control their impulses and learn how to be flexible. They’ll also learn the various routes to get to the finish line by observing how their playmates and friends behave.

Memory games: Memory games, such as memory matching or Simon Says, can help your child to improve their working memory skills via cognitive training. Memory games involve task initiation — your child will be required to perform their part when it is their turn to do so. Task initiations are a big starting point for improving your child’s executive functioning skills.

Organisational tasks: Helping your child to organise their toys, books, or clothes can provide opportunities for them to practise planning and organising skills. Your child can decide which books they want to keep and which books to give away. They can also plan where their story books will go on the shelf, and where their school books should be kept. This is not only fun, but incredibly therapeutic for both parents and child as it leads to a cleaner and neater room!

Note: The activities listed above should also be used in children without executive functioning challenges. In short, go ahead and have a great time with your child as these exercises both strengthen their executive functioning skills while promoting stronger bonds between you and your child.

How Shaws Preschool Develops Your Child’s Executive Function Skills

Wish to enrol your child in a preschool that focuses on developing their executive functioning skills? Consider Shaws Preschool!

Our ShawsPlay curriculum allows your children to take the lead when it comes to combining inquiry-based learning with play-based pedagogical approaches. It not only focuses on academic excellence, but stresses the importance of learning through play. This combination is extremely important in improving and shaping your child’s executive functioning skills in a fun and non-stressful way.

That’s not all. Shaws academic component gets your child ready for formal school, while the play-based component teaches them how to focus, plan, make decisions and interact well, equipping them with necessary life skills.

From independently tying their shoelaces, to helping their friends in need, our curriculum incorporates all the routines and little challenges of daily life that every child will encounter as they progress from each level. As a result, they learn to listen to instructions, initiate tasks, have enough focus to see their assignments from start to finish, and have the flexibility to listen to their friends’ or teammates’ points of view and change course when necessary.

Examples of executive function learning activities we do at Shaws include:

  1. Rhymes and phonics – memorising and focusing in a fun and non-stressful manner.
  2. Reading, writing and doing sums – undertaking a task and making sure the final goal is achieved.
  3. Excursions, garden play and sand play – allow for better flexibility and self-regulation of emotions and inhibitions.
  4. Building blocks – encouraging patience and careful planning.
  5. Dramatic play and role play – learning time management and memorising lines.
  6. Daily routines – gives them a sense of responsibility and the ability to shift from one task to another, such as putting the plates in the sink after eating, proceeding to wash their hands, and walking back to the classroom in an organised manner.

Our ECDA-certified teachers are also very patient, understanding and compassionate because we know that every child is unique and that every child learns at his or her own pace. We understand that a little support, love and kindness can go a long way.


Building your child’s executive functioning skills is not only beneficial for your child, but for everyone. Your child grows up to be a responsible youth and young adult, capable of juggling a number of commitments and playing their part in the community. They will also be more health aware and make better decisions.

The more we as a society invest in our children’s executive functioning skills, the more dividends we can reap in the future.

We hope that this comprehensive guide has helped you to understand what executive function in children is all about and why it is so important that these skills are nurtured from the get-go. As Singapore’s foremost play-based preschool, Shaws objective is to provide a preschool education that prepares your child not only for formal education, but for life itself.

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