Executive Functions: The Most Important Skills a Child can Master

Executive functioning skills are the cognitive processes that allow our brains to function properly and learn new things. Often times, executive functioning deficits result in children who have a difficult time regulating their behavior and have challenges with learning. These areas must be specifically targeted in order to unlock a child's ability to learn new information.

COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY: a child's ability to sustain attention and shift attention appropriately during learning tasks.

When a child's brain is unable to sustain adequate attention, they miss out on learning opportunities. Being able to filter out distractors and maintain attention is one of the most valuable skills a child can learn. If your child has challenges with cognitive flexibility, they may: 

  • have difficulty sitting for stories or participating in circle time
  • demonstrate anxiety when asked to change plans
  • have difficulty transitioning to new activities
  • take a long time to recover from disappointments
  • have trouble sharing with other children
WORKING MEMORY: a child's ability to remember and use information while in the middle of an activity. 

This skill allows children to begin processing more complex information and often leads to following directions more consistently, producing more sophisticated communication and engaging in more appropriate conversations.  If your child has poor working memory skills, they may: 

  • struggle following multi-step directions
  • not remember instructions given
  • not be able to repeat back items in a list
  • have difficulty responding to questions
INHIBITORY CONTROL: a child's ability to resist impulsive responses and regulate themselves, in order to learn.

Being able to regulate impulses helps a child increase their ability to attend to a speaker, sustain attention and socialize more naturally with siblings and peers. Improving impulse control allows a child to follow directions with more consistency and respond more appropriately in conversations. If your child has problems with inhibitory control, they may: 

  • perseverate on the same topics or engage in repetitive behaviors
  • grab desired items without asking first
  • rush through activities without checking answers
  • blurt out responses without thinking of thoughtful responses
  • have difficulty accurately answering questions  

Like any other skill, practice makes perfect when it comes to executive functioning skills. Children learn best when they are motivated and engaged in meaningful social interactions, and can practice sustaining attention, filtering out distractions, shifting between tasks and building working memory skills. 

Do you suspect your child has executive functioning difficulties? Click here for more information about a speech/language evaluation.  

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