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What Are Executive Function Skills?

Learn How Executive Functioning Skills Help Children Succeed in School & Life

Executive Functioning (EF) Allows a Person to Thrive In the World

Executive Function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses (Harvard University Center on the Developing Child).

While adults generally take these mental processes for granted, it takes many years for these skills to develop in children. What may seem like a lack of focus or effort to parents/teachers can actually be a reflection of underdeveloped EF skills. The part of the brain in charge of EF skills is not fully developed until after the college years, but research tells us students can improve these skills through interaction and practice. Improving these skills helps students build the confidence, competencies, and habits they need to achieve their goals.

SAOTG academic coaches and tutors work with students to develop EF skills and create habits and routines that promote everyday engagement.

EF Skills Depend on 3 Types of Brain Function

Working Memory

Holding and manipulating information in the brain


Filtering thoughts to lessen distractions and reduce impulsivity

Mental Flexibility

Embracing necessary shifts in focus to meet ever-changing demands

Executive Function Skills Development From Elementary School Through College & Beyond

Maturation of Executive functions leads to age-appropriate academic & personal skills

Executive Functioning Skills in elementary school

In elementary school years (kindergarten through fifth grade), students improve planning behaviors which allow them to begin to identify future events, work towards predetermined goals, and consider the steps that will be required to complete simple tasks. Additionally, students begin to develop basic control of emotions, impulses, and attention.

Students’ ability to recognize patterns in time, emotions, and experiences, allows them to cultivate skills that translate to better classroom performance but does not remove the need for oversight and guidance. Critical to elementary school students are:

  • Paying attention to teachers during class time
  • Following short, uncomplicated series of directions
  • Developing primary control over behavior and impulses
  • Regulating one’s self in order to follow rules

Executive Functioning Skills in Middle school

By middle school (sixth through eighth grade), the need for constant supervision lessens as students become able to identify problems independently and work to solve those problems with more limited adult support. An increase in both the freedom to make decisions and the responsibility that comes with those decisions are critical to development and preparation for high school.

Students are expected to be able to concentrate for longer periods of time and to manage larger workloads. When students struggle to meet these expectations, it often requires the support of an adult to help implement the structure needed to jumpstart EF skills development. Examples of how middle school students display their Executive Functioning skills are:

  • Planning ahead for small problems and more complex assignments
  • Following a consistent daily routine
  • Adapting to changing environments
  • Answering questions about their own needs during school and activities

Executive Functioning Skills in High school

The high school years (ninth through twelfth) present a unique challenge for students who are expected to maintain complex school and extracurricular schedules, manage large projects, and prepare for their future during a time when new driving privileges force a huge increase in both freedom and responsibility.

There is typically both a significant increase in expectations and a significant decrease in oversight during the high school years. Development of self-assessment skills ensures that these changes result in personal growth rather than in trouble for teens. Executive Function skills that should be considered include:

  • Flexible thinking and adapting behaviors to different situations
  • Organizing and planning for long-term projects with multiple phases
  • Developing self-awareness
  • Recognizing areas for improvement and anticipating problems in advance

Executive Functioning Skills in College & Beyond

By the time students begin college, they are expected to have mastered many EF skills even though the region of the brain responsible for these skills is not fully developed until well into a person’s twenties. Self-aware students take constant inventory of performance and remain flexible in their approach as they continue to develop into full-fledged adults.

By adulthood, the combination of planning skills and impulse control ensures that work gets done, responsibilities are met, and rushing and recklessness are minimized. Adults are expected to be adept at:

  • Balancing work/school and personal life effectively
  • Setting and achieving meaningful goals for lifelong satisfaction
  • Self-regulation to manage impulsiveness across all environments
  • Managing multiple schedules and projects without external reminders

How to Help Your Child Develop EF Skills

Parents are often very familiar with the presentation of poor EF skills, but they do not always recognize that these skills can be developed with the help of an academic coach.

Most often, poor executive functioning skills manifest in the following ways:

  • Trouble organizing work
  • Trouble completing tasks
  • Trouble managing materials
  • Trouble managing time
  • Trouble maintaining focus
  • Trouble with impulse control and self-awareness

If you’re concerned that your child is labeled lazy, forgetful, inconsiderate of others, impulsive, disorganized, or scattered, the underlying cause may be poorly developed executive functioning skills.

Children are not born with EF skills — just like any other skill, they can be taught and developed.

SAOTG academic coaches and tutors can help alleviate the stress on families and improve a student’s performance by evaluating the areas and EF skills needing attention, and providing a plan to strengthen those skills. Some ways our expert coaches can aid in the development of EF skills are:

  1. Establish routines to aid in time management
  2. Set goals to ensure a consistent focus point
  3. Create systems to maintain organization
  4. Practice breaking larger projects and assignments into smaller and more manageable pieces to develop task initiation skills
  5. Provide accountability to help students develop their ability to sustain focus

For an example of what poor development of EF skills can look like in students and how SAOTG academic coaches helped, read Emily’s Story.

Does Your Child Need Help With Executive Functioning?

SAOTG coaches help students of all ages to develop their EF skills through interaction and practice. Contact us today to learn more!