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Putting our thinking caps on (Executive Function)

Executive function is much like having an air traffic control system at a very busy airport managing the arrivals and departures of planes on multiple runways. Executive function includes the ability to:

  • Focus

  • Hold and work with information in mind

  • Monitor errors

  • Revise plans

  • Make decisions

  • Filter distractions.

Science shows that we are born with the capacity to develop these skills, however they are much depended on our experiences during childhood through to adolescence. Creating the foundations of these skills is one of the most critical, yet challenging tasks in early childhood. Building on these skills are essential to healthy development and are the building blocks to learning.

Nowadays we refer to the brain as “plastic”. This means that the brain has the ability to modify by creating new pathways which in turn allows us to learn new skills.Based on this, we know that executive function skills can be supported with specialised practice and training.

So firstly, how can you tell if your child has difficulties with executive functioning?

Children with executive functioning difficulties may:

  • find goal setting challenging

  • find following instructions difficult or placing steps into a sequence

  • show little awareness of the process of how things happen

  • have trouble initiating a task

  • not think about the future or about consequences

  • have difficulty adapting to change

  • skip steps in a procedure and be confused as to why it failed

  • easily forget what they were just told to do

  • have trouble controlling their emotions

  • have difficulty paying attention

Fun activities to assist with executive function.


- Create a home space for your child's items. Label areas in the house for certain items

- Use checklists to help your child create schedules

Working memory:

- Use analogues and stories to help remember new learned behaviours

- Play recall games such as "I went to the shops and bought"

- Use visual cues to assist the child with following instructions


- Use behaviour charts

- discuss actions/ behaviour with the child and allow them to reflect

Task Initiation/planning:

- Break tasks into smaller steps. Allow your child to take breaks or offer rewards in-between tasks.

Sequencing and following instructions:

- Cut and paste projects requiring multiple steps in which the child must complete the task in a sequential manner.

Fox, S.E., Levitt, P., & Nelson, C.A. (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development, 81(1), 28-40. Nelson, C.A. (2000). The neurobiological bases of early intervention. In J. Shonkoff & S. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood intervention (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. Center on the Developing Child (2012). Executive Function (InBrief). Retrieved from

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