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How does Executive Functioning Develop?

Updated: Aug 4, 2022

So, you want to do a deeper dive into executive functioning? Well, here you go. I find this stuff fascinating, and maybe you will too! And even if you don’t, having a bit more information might be worth it to you because it can help you lead the life you want to life. Each of my next blog posts will tackle a specific element of executive functioning, from what can hinder executive function development, to the neurology of executive function to, of course, how to support yourself in building these skills!

We’ll start off here, with the timeline of how executive functioning develops. This should not only give you a sense of where you (or your little one) might be on this path, but also help you to understand the integral role that executive function plays in our everyday lives!

Within the article I’ll place links to resources where you can learn a little bit more about each topic I write about.

Bon Voyage!

When we are born, many of us are born with the innate potential for executive functioning. Some people are not born with this potential or are born with limited potential, such as those with genetic or intellectual differences. Those of us who do have that do not have these differences are not born with these skills, but are born with the brain-body setup necessary to learn them.

Remarkably, executive functions begin to appear within the first year of a child’s life. I was shocked when I learned that so many of the games we play with children that I thought of as just that – games with no inherent purpose – are actually supporting our little ones in building executive functions! Think about the games we play with babies and young children – peekaboo, pat-a-cake and other rhymes that end with a predictable surprise, hiding, imitation/copying, and role playing games. These games improve for example sustained attention (staying engaged in the game or rhyme for some increasing period of time), working memory (remembering that something or someone is hidden!) and emotional control and response inhibition (games can be really stimulating for a little one, and that surprise they know is coming at the end of the rhyme or hiding game! They inhibit their surprise response, and build emotional capacity (control) to not only tolerate, but enjoy the stimulation of surprise!)!

In elementary school, executive functions begin to rapidly expand. In addition to beginning to learn and execute these skills in schools, think here about games like card and board games, physical activities, and learning songs. For example, kids have to plan what they are going to do, prioritize the steps to get there, organize their cards or pieces, and adjust flexibly on the go as things change.

Executive functions naturally continue to expand through someone’s 20s and sometimes into their early 30s. These skills are the ones that most people need for jobs, building and maintaining a social life, and engaging in hobbies. Think for example about goal-directed persistence and task initiation (we no longer have grades and parents to tell us what to do or when to do it, or organize play-dates for us), time management (how do I get everything done this day/week that I need to do?), and meta-cognition (how am I doing at work? In my relationships?)

Of course, we are working on all of these 12 executive skills throughout our lifespan. However I have found that some of them are more necessary for early life (such as sustained attention and working memory) and are necessary to build other more complex executive functions (like task initiation, goal-directed persistence, and meta-cognition).

You may be wondering, well I”m over 30 now, is there any possibility that I can develop my executive functioning capacity? Or is it all over for me. And I’m here to tell you that yes! It is possible! Stay tuned for my next blog post where we’ll do a deep dive into what change looks like as you get older on both a behavioral and biological level! (Did I mention I used to be a chemist? I nerd out on the biology of this stuff (: )

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