Meet the executive functions: the key to brains that work like they should

By Mary Kate Gulick, Content Manager

Too often, early childhood education programs are seen as ways to pump up toddlers’ math and pre-reading skills. There’s an unspoken idea that these programs are “nice to have” because they provide a soft, unmeasurable advantage to the kids who are lucky enough to participating. It’s only widely becoming understood that these “need to have” programs lay the critical foundation for  the management of all future thinking. These executive functions of the brain are the most predictive of success – in school, relationships, careers, leadership challenges, emergencies, and every other life situation.

What are executive functions?

The Harvard Center for the Developing Child describes the executive functions as an air-traffic control system for the brain. Three types of executive functions – working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive or mental flexibility – direct and manage pieces of information that arrive and depart the brain on disparate and overlapping schedule. Each of these functions become more complex as babies grow.

The three dimensions of executive functioning are not distinct from one another. There are plenty of individual executive functions that draw from more than one dimension, and most tasks require coordination across all dimensions. Most experts highlight these three dimensions and discuss how they work together in order to produce  a competent executive function system:

  • Working memory – These are the skills that allow a child to perform multi-step tasks and to understand social and structural rules that apply to the situation they’re in. Persistence, cooperation, task independence, and responsibility stem from this dimension.
  • Inhibitory control – This set of skills makes it possible for a child to ignore distractions while doing a task, refrain from talking out of turn or hitting a classmate, and keep emotions in check when things get frustrating or boring. Focus, self-control, prioritization, sustained attention and action are associated with the inhibitory control dimension.
  • Cognitive or mental flexibility – These skills allow children to adjust as circumstances change, apply certain sets or rules in different settings, see things from different perspectives, and recover when things don’t go our way. Resilience, empathy and scenario running are closely associated with this class of skills.

How do executive functions develop?

These skills start developing at birth and show a dramatic improvement between ages 3-5.

ExecFunctionsGrowthAnd we know that brains are build from the bottom up – types of neural connections develop sequentially. And evidence is showing that if these higher cognitive functions are not developed very early in life, problems can occur later on.


Once each of the executive functions begins to develop, it follows a predictable pattern of growth when conditions are healthy.


Scientists believe that executive functions live primarily in the prefrontal cortex, but also involve the anterior cingulate, parietal cortex and hippocampus through the brain’s neural circuitry. Most of the development of these skills happens in early childhood, when the brain is most flexible and still laying and reinforcing the neural pathways that will be in place for life. This means that between birth and 5, there is the most potential for developing healthy executive functions. After all, it’s during these years that the child’s brain will experience the most rapid growth and development of any time during life.


but there’s also the most risk of damage to this critical set of skills.

Toxic stress and executive functions

Toxic stress in the form of neglect, abuse, instability and ongoing threats compromises the ability of a child’s brain to form the connections required for healthy executive function. According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child:

The brain regions and circuits associated with executive functioning have extensive interconnections with deeper brain structures that control the developing child’s responses to threat and stress. This implies that the developing executive functioning system both influences and is affected by the young child’s experience and management of threat, stress and strong emotions.

The number of toxic stress exposures or risk factors compounds negative outcomes for early childhood brain development.

The number of toxic stress exposures or risk factors compounds negative outcomes for early childhood brain development.

Damage to the developing executive functioning system shows up in as problem behaviors in the learning environment – inability to stay on task, losing control of emotions frequently, failure to retain information. These behaviors are likely due to delayed development in the prefrontal cortex.

A brain without an air-traffic control system.

Imagine a class of 7-year-olds (or 15-year-olds) with no impulse control. They can’t stay quiet during lessons. They don’t take turns. They frequently lash out at one another physically or verbally and don’t remember which actions carry consequences. It’s chaos. And not a lot of learning is getting done.

Consider what this looks like in the adult world. We’ve all known adults who can’t seem to adapt their behavior to fit changing environments. And adults who engage in high-risk, destructive behavior over and over again, or those who cannot, they may try, be able to remember multiple tasks or rules.

The idea that children just develop executive function skills by virtue of maturing past age 4 is a myth. These are skills that are first learned through positive, safe early-childhood experiences and built on over the school years. When those experiences and that critical early learning is absent, the outcomes make sense – aggression, uncontrolled emotions, poor academic performance and high-risk behaviors seem a likely outcome for an individual with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

So why are we still calling these “soft skills”?

Executive functions serve as the basis for academic skills, social and emotional well being, and general competence as a child, adolescent and adult. The lack of these skills is often cited by employers who can’t seem to find workers who with the kind of mental flexibility and impulse control required. And if we continue to ignore these critical skills in favor of more narrow and prescriptive pre-academic categories, we’ll see more difficulties in classrooms, in the job force and in the legal system.

Evidence shows that engaging in activities focused on developing executive functioning skills for young children makes a difference in behavior and in academic performance.  When these skills are missing, behavior and academic performance suffer. The likelihood of addiction or other risk behavior increases, and the chances of becoming a productive, contributing citizen decrease. It’s clear how critical these skills are.

Going deeper

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore individual executive functions, how to encourage their healthy development, and potential negative and positive outcomes.

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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Posted in Early Childhood
3 comments on “Meet the executive functions: the key to brains that work like they should
  1. […] much the same way that children develop other executive functions, they build their self-regulation skills by practicing them, challenging them, and consistently […]

  2. […] rested and otherwise healthy as well to be ready to learn. These skills come along with those vital executive functions we’ve been talking about. If this all sounds like it’s too simple, just imagine a child who did not have these […]

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