Executive function and self-regulation skills provide critical supports for learning and development. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, executive function skills allow us to retain and work with information in our brains, focus our attention, filter distractions, and switch mental gears. There are three basic dimensions of these skills:
These skills help us remember the information we need to complete a task, filter distractions, resist inappropriate or non-productive impulses, and sustain attention during a particular activity. We use them to set goals and plan ways to meet them, assess our progress along the way, and adjust the plan if necessary, while managing frustration so we don’t act on it.Although we aren’t born with executive function skills, we are born with the potential to develop them. The process is a slow one that begins in infancy, continues into early adulthood, and is shaped by our experiences. Children build their skills through engagement in meaningful social interactions and enjoyable activities that draw on self-regulatory skills at increasingly demanding levels.In infancy, interactions with adults help babies focus attention, build working memory, and manage reactions to stimulating experiences. Through creative play, games, and schoolwork, children practice integrating their attention, working memory, and self-control to support planning, flexible problem-solving, and sustained engagement. By high school, students are expected to organize their time (largely) independently, keep track of their assignments, and manage projects to completion.As children develop these capacities, they need practice reflecting on their experiences, talking about what they are doing and why, monitoring their actions, considering possible next steps, and evaluating the effectiveness of their decisions. Adults play a critical role in supporting, or “scaffolding,” the development of these skills, first by helping children complete challenging tasks, and then by gradually stepping back to let children manage the process independently—and learn from their mistakes—as they are ready and able to do so.The activities that follow have been identified as age-appropriate ways to strengthen various components of executive function. Although scientific studies have not yet proven the effectiveness of all these suggestions, their presence here reflects the judgment of experts in the field about activities that allow children to practice their executive function skills. Practice leads to improvement. These activities are not the only ones that may help; rather, they represent a sample of the many things children enjoy that can support healthy development.Finally, please note that when websites and products are referenced in these activity suggestions, it is because they are helpful resources or examples. Their inclusion does not imply endorsement, nor does it imply that they are the only, or necessarily the best, resources.Download the guide by individual chapters, each of which contains activities suitable for a particular age group:
- Working memory — The ability to hold information in mind and use it.
- Inhibitory control — The ability to master thoughts and impulses so as to resist temptations, distractions, and habits, and to pause and think before acting.
- Cognitive flexibility — The capacity to switch gears and adjust to changing demands, priorities, or perspectives.