Executive Function

Executive Function Skills By Age

October 14, 2021

Many times, parents fall to one end of the spectrum; they expect too much or too little from their child.

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Over the past few months, we have been sharing about executive function: what they arewhy they are so important, and how we as parents can support children with ADHD with these skills. One question we consistently hear from parents is, “How do I know what skills are appropriate for my child at a certain age?” This is a great question! Many times, parents fall to one end of the spectrum; either they expect too much from their child, or they assume that their child cannot do tasks independently. Parents can actually end up “over-helping,” and accidentally make children more dependent on their parents. Oops, I know that is NOT your goal!

To help you understand where your child should be in their development, we have information about what you can expect at various ages. Before we start, it is SO important to understand that every child is different! Executive function skills develop differently in everyone, so keep in mind that your child may not be ready for the “age appropriate” tasks. That’s ok! Just drop back a level or two and meet them wherever they are. For the descriptions that are longer periods of time (age 6-11, for example), keep in mind that these skills are constantly developing. So we would not expect a 7-year-old to be doing everything in that stage.

OK, here we go! Starting with babies and all the way up through age 18 and beyond, here are some guidelines for how and when the executive functions develop:

Babies (6-12 months) 

Babies are already developing executive function skills! It’s amazing to see how quickly a crying baby can settle down when they are comforted by a preferred caregiver, which is the emergence of emotional control. Since babies aren’t able to self-soothe very well, they rely on familiar people around them to help them manage their emotions. Babies are also developing working memory as they learn to recognize family members’ faces or show a preference for certain toys/activities. As they learn to track objects with their eyes or watch your face when you sing rhymes with them, they are developing attention. 

Appropriate tasks for a 6-12 month old include:

  • Beginning to understand cause and effect. In other words, your baby is learning that their behavior has an immediate, visible effect on the world around them. For example, you can introduce your baby to rattles or bells that make sound when they shake them. Babies also love pop-up toys or toys that move/spin, such as a gear spinner.
  • Games like Peek-A-Boo teach babies to attend to your face and anticipate what is coming next, so they can learn a routine. These interactive games also help them recognize and respond to emotions of those around them.
  • At this age, babies should participate in the feeding process; whether you are a proponent of self-feeding or parent-led, babies should be turning their head toward the food and reaching toward preferred foods.

Toddlers (1-2 years)

Toddlers are busy creatures! At this age, they explore the world and learn almost everything through play. As they learn to interact with their environment and people around them, they are learning how to problem solve (shift), express preferences, and protest appropriately (inhibition). They are also learning to communicate their feelings and will often have big reactions to minor problems… which can be SO frustrating as a parent!

I will never forget one Valentine’s Day when my daughter was almost two years old. My husband and I were so excited to celebrate by making her a special breakfast. We put whipped cream and strawberries on a waffle. Of course, she took one look at my creation and burst into tears. Since we didn’t have any more waffles in the house, she continued to cry and tantrum for about 20 minutes. All because I had made a “yucky waffle”. Real talk, I was ready to throw the waffle in the trash can. Maybe I did, I honestly don’t remember how that outburst even ended. Looking back now, we can laugh about it… but let’s just say that at 22 months, she hadn’t even started to master the executive function of emotional control!  

Appropriate tasks for a 1-2 year old include:

  • Assisting with simple self-care activities, such as washing hands, brushing hair, or getting a diaper before being changed.
  • Simple one- or two-step, routine instructions, such as “Go get your shoes” or “Pick out a book and sit on the couch.”
  • Imitating other peoples’ words, actions, and facial expressions: children at this age are becoming master imitators. This is an important way that they learn about expectations and how to navigate the world. You can turn imitation into a fun game by imitating your child and smiling at them. Make it very obvious that you are imitating them. Once they catch on, they will probably imitate you right back!
  • Looking at books and attending to the pictures: reading to your child daily will improve your child’s executive function skills, including organization, attention, and emotional control.

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

During the preschool years, the executive functions that relate to social interaction are developing very quickly. Between the ages of 3 and 5, kids are learning to negotiate, compromise, stand up for themselves, and persuade other people to see their viewpoint. They can be very persistent when they really want something! Preschoolers are becoming better at emotional control and shift. They are also learning to keep their hands to themselves, wait their turn, and follow the group plan (self-monitoring and inhibition).

Because kids love to know about “rules” at this age, it’s easier to introduce the concept of “everything has a place”. For example, you can teach your child that the hairbrush always goes in the top bathroom drawer. Jackets hang on a hook in the hallway. If you are consistent at putting things in the same place (organization), they can learn the same expectation and it will make life much easier down the road!

Age-appropriate tasks for a 3-5 year old include: 

  • Simple self-care routines, such as brushing teeth (with an “audit” from the parents), washing hands, and brushing hair.
  • Putting laundry into the hamper after changing clothes.
  • Putting shoes and toys in the correct spot after using them.
  • Setting the table with kid-friendly dishes. This is a great way to support executive function. The child has to picture what the final result should look like in order to successfully complete this task.
  • Identifying and responding to another person’s emotion, such as someone crying or yelling.
  • Help with cooking, such as pouring or measuring items. For this one, keep in mind that the process is more important than the end result – so if you are trying to make a perfect meal, this may not be the time to invite your child to help. If you are comfortable picking a few egg shells out of the scrambled eggs before cooking, you will be amazed at how excited your child is about helping you crack the eggs or use a whisk!

Elementary Age (approximately 6-11 years)

At this age, children are quickly developing executive functions that relate to academic work. As they are exposed to literature and school-based concepts, they use working memory to recall and integrate information into their current knowledge. They use planning and organization to keep track of their own things and manage their own time with school-based assignments. For long-term projects or group work, they develop initiation to begin a task, even if it isn’t motivating. Socially, school-age children continue to develop emotional control and inhibition which are much needed for successful social interaction. {For free strategies to teach relaxation and emotional control, click here}. 

Age-appropriate tasks for elementary school-age children include: 

  • Multi-step tasks such as cleaning a bedroom, helping with yard work, or sorting laundry into piles.
  • Managing homework and projects with support from parents; as they reach 1st grade and beyond, children can use a calendar or planner to break tasks down.
  • Increasing independence in self-care routines such as showering, bathing, and dressing.
  • Gathering materials for an event or project (e.g., soccer game, poster board presentation) and making sure they have everything they will need.
  • Inhibition of inappropriate behaviors at school; learning to raise their hand, use the restroom during breaks, not talking during class.
  • Ability to “go with the flow” and change plans as needed; typically, there are less tantrums in this age range as children learn to be more flexible.

Middle School through High School (approximately 12-18 years)

During this stage, children are rapidly developing their critical thinking abilities. They learn to understand several different perspectives and manage competing priorities at school and during extra-curriculars (shift)It is expected that by middle school, children show inhibition and follow the rules related to each situation, such as school or clubs. Task-monitoring and planning become increasingly important as projects and assignments get longer, requiring more complex steps in order to complete the task. As teenagers go through high school, they are expected to develop goals and initiate the steps to achieve these tasks.

Age-appropriate tasks for middle school and high school age children include:

  • At the early end of this stage, it is appropriate for middle school children to be aware of the schedule and anticipate events (e.g., I have Karate every Monday); at the end of this stage, a senior in high school would likely be able to manage their schedules somewhat independently (e.g., knowing what days they work at their part-time job, when to be home for family dinner).
  • Academically, middle school and high school require increasingly independent work, so planning and organization become essential to academic success.
  • Problem solving and critical thinking are increasing rapidly, so middle school and high school students often begin to develop their own beliefs and world views, separate from their parents.
  • As they near the end of this stage, teens typically engage in less risky behavior as they are able to see the bigger picture; however, most teens are not yet able to understand long-term consequences in the same way that adults do.

It doesn’t stop there… 

Keep in mind that the human brain takes around 25 years to fully develop. So, even at 18 years, or what we consider “adulthood”, the brain continues to develop… with the most notable developments happening in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for executive functions!

We want to hear from you. What other questions do you have about executive function? Our next executive function blog post will be all about strategies you can use at home, so let us know your struggles!

Does your child have a diagnosis of ADHD? Or do you suspect that a diagnosis is in their future? If so, you don’t want to miss our FREE ADHD Treatment Guide, which explains the science behind all of the most popular ADHD interventions. We also have a FREE ADHD Parenting Guide, with our top six keys for raising a happy and independent child with ADHD.

And if you are ready to jump in with both feet, check out our online parenting course, Creating Calm! In this course, we break down tons of practical, easy-to-implement tools and strategies. The best part? You can watch it anytime, from anywhere, in your jammies. No babysitter required!

For Part 1 of our Executive Function series, click here.

For Part 2 of our Executive Function series, click here.

Have a beautiful week, 

Katie

 
The contents of this site are opinions of The Childhood Collective PLLC partners unless otherwise noted. The information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any type of medical condition and is not intended as personalized medical/psychological advice. Any decision you make regarding your and your family’s health and medical treatments should be made with a qualified healthcare provider. 

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  1. […] about executive function, including what the executive functions are, why they are important, what ages they develop, and concrete strategies parents can use to help improve their child’s executive function. […]

  2. […] child cannot (consistently) do something well that is outside of their developmental skill level. When children are presented with tasks day after day that are outside their skill level, they are […]

  3. […] is important, especially for children with ADHD (keep in mind that they often lag 30% behind their peers in executive functioning and other […]

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