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What is executive functioning, and why does it matter?

Woman and two toddlers playing together

Key points:

  1. Executive function involves working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. It starts developing in early childhood through cognitive, physical, emotional, and linguistic processes.
  2. Executive function is crucial for focus, planning, making connections, and coping with stress.

A group of children are sitting in a circle with their teacher. The teacher starts passing around various toys one by one. They hand the first child a button that beeps when pressed and instructs the students to take turns passing the object around the circle. To do so successfully, a child must receive the toy, remember to beep it, and pass it to the next child. But what if another child steals the object before it’s their turn? What if the beeping sound is scary? Or what if the child forgets the instructions? Knowing what to do in this situation requires a key developmental skill: executive functioning.

Executive function is a fancy name psychologists use to describe how we juggle our actions, thoughts, and emotions every day. It involves working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. We rely on strong executive functions to stay focused, plan ahead, make connections between ideas, and cope with stress. Although they are high-level skills that characterize adult development, executive functioning actually starts to develop during early childhood through “simpler” cognitive, physical, emotional, and linguistic processes. This includes: organizing items into categories, recognizing similarities and differences, linking the sound of a word to its meaning, identifying their own emotions as well as others, and following directions. Eventually, children should be able to handle cognitive tasks (e.g., doing simple addition and subtraction) while regulating their emotions (e.g. not have a meltdown when they can’t solve a problem).

Because executive functioning involves many different skills and parts of the brain, it takes time to master. When toddlers appear stubborn and refuse to follow instructions (for example, not wanting to put on boots and mittens to go out in the snow) it’s not because they are trying to be defiant, but because they have underdeveloped executive functions. However, executive functioning is highly related to future levels of independence and is, therefore, a developmental priority. For our children to grow into responsible, relatable adults, we must model appropriate social behaviors and encourage positive relationships now. Facilitating small group activities and providing scaffolded assistance with complex tasks can help aid this process of development.


Even a highly motivated child may struggle with self-control or paying attention, so being warm and patient while modeling appropriate behavior goes a long way in working towards more advanced executive skills.

María Mirón is a psychology researcher with a Masters in Clinical Psychology. With over eight years of research experience, she has published and presented extensively on Early Childhood Development forums across the globe and is currently a professor of research methods at the University of Monterrey. She is on a mission to bridge the gap between the science of ECD and practical tools for parents.

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