Executive Function: What It Is and Why It’s Important

Executive function skills help people stay focused, and manage the flow of information. Day to day, these skills allow a person to pay attention, plan ahead, remember details, and juggle multiple tasks. They also help control their behavior and emotions, delay immediate rewards for future benefits, and continue forward when faced with challenges.

Development of this building block

Most people start to develop basic executive function during early childhood. The skills acquired during this time lay a foundation for the more complex aspects of executive function that develop throughout middle childhood and into early adulthood.

The tables that follow show what this building block looks like at three stages of development:

Early childhood (ages 3–5)

Milestones for executive function
Begins to control their own behaviors and emotions
Begins to stay focused and complete tasks
Shows the above skills when using and managing limited resources like time, money, treats, or belongings

Middle childhood (ages 6–12)

Milestones for executive function
Delays immediate reward for future benefit
Begins to think about how current actions may lead to future results

Adolescence and young adulthood (ages 13–21)

Milestones for executive function
Demonstrates critical thinking skills, such as researching, analyzing, and comparing information
Thinks about the long-term and believes there will be opportunities in the future
Shows the ability to plan, set goals, and delay immediate reward for future gain
Knows how to start an activity or project
Controls impulses and thinks creatively to address unexpected challenges
Remembers key information

Instructional strategies

Research shows that the following are among the instructional strategies that can help students develop executive function.

  • Cooperative learning: Small groups of students work together to build their knowledge and understanding of a subject while developing positive relationships and the ability to work as a team
  • Personalized instruction: Teacher tailors instruction to the individual student, including focusing resources, strategies, supports, and pacing on that student’s needs
  • Simulation: Hands-on learning activities that use real-world scenarios to promote critical thinking and applied learning

Learning activities

Learning activities that nurture executive function should stimulate working memory, cognitive flexibility, self-regulation, self-management, persistence, and focus. The types of activities that support these skills include the following.

  • Intergenerational programs: Intentional dual generational collaborations between adults (parents, volunteers, senior citizens, etc.) and young people that promote learning and growth and allow older adults to mentor youth and/or share their knowledge and experiences in meaningful ways
  • Planning activities: Exercises that support students in creating and following a plan to complete a task or accomplish a goal
  • Pretend play: Make-believe play where children use their imaginations to act out stories and take on new roles and personas
  • Puzzles and quiet games: Opportunities to engage and challenge students through problem-solving tasks that help them learn and apply new skills, understand complex concepts, and develop vocabulary
  • Self-directed exploration: Active learning experiences that give students choices and allow them to explore and discover new topics, ideas, and skills based on their interests and readiness
  • Storytelling: The act of telling a story orally, while using different voices, dramatic inflections, or other narrative embellishments
Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau | Executive function, https://www.consumerfinance.gov/consumer-tools/educator-tools/youth-financial-education/learn/executive-function | Public domain. Retrieved August 28, 2023.

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