Examining executive-function efficiency

By Diane VanCleave, LCSW

Advice from Youth First

It is said that, for a parent, if it does not feel like “white-knuckle time,” you’re not doing it right.

Parenting has its complexities and challenges, and a caretaker needs to be able to apply child guidance that is age and need appropriate. A child’s growth progresses through executive-function efficiency. Executive function is the interconnection and coordination of brain-activity skills that are crucial to human development. Parents and teachers need to be working toward a child’s healthy EF.

The actual skill sets of EF involve development in clear thinking, negotiation in living with others, task accomplishment, managing emotions, self-initiation, completing goals through steps, understanding patterns in organization, gauging time, being able to switch from one task to another, and sustained attention and memory.

There is sufficient evidence that, starting at birth, the precursor patterns and sequences needed for EF evolve as the cortex develops. Researchers speak of scaffolding as the necessary building block of function. Scaffolding involves integrating earlier skill sets that help in critical thinking and integrating—manageable chucks of learning-built-upon-previous-learning. It is clear that parents need to be observing and nurturing to recognize early precursors that will eventually add to academic, social and economic success. A child mastery in EF requires the child to engage in continuing strengthening and practicing.

Without the practiced moments, parents may see, for example, child melt downs when tasks do not go effortlessly because they do not have scaffolds that help them persist through failures and mistakes. A child has to learn functioning based upon their corresponding developmental age. For example, if a parent wants to work on planning skills set of EF with their child, it is crucial to remember that in-the-future anticipation for children is age-determined. For a 2-year-old, now is as far into the future as the child can orient. For a 3-5-year-old, 20 minutes is as long as the toddler can anticipate; for a third-grader, it is 8-12 hours. Even a fully mature adult has a comfortable anticipation window of only 3-5 weeks.

In teens, scaffolding activities scheduled by parents might look like time to listen and talk. A teen’s complex scaffolding would follow their own interests, focus on what they want to accomplish and how they would accomplish that task themselves. In younger children, scaffolding looks like heavier reliance on direction. Scaffolding might include colors or articulating a dialogue with the child on what they might do if they lose a toy or made a mistake—even playing board games scaffolds planning, organizing, and important emotional self-regulation.

With toddlers, EF develops when the caregiver provides toys or household items to explore. Sometimes the greatest learning experience for a toddler can even be the introduction of a cardboard box. Infants begin their EF skill sets with hand clapping, mimicry, and caregiver facial affirmation.

The parents/teacher/caregiver can use modeling and reflection, from their own lived experience, to nurture and support. In the modern age, executive functioning requires worthy exploration in order to help the child develop to their full potential. The caregiver has a role to play in helping their child negotiate EF throughout their lives.


Barkley, R. A. (2012). Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. New York: Guilford Press.

Ninivaggi, F. J. (2020) Using the Mind’s Executive Functions, Psychology Today.

Sippel, A. (Blog). Executive Function Skills 101: The Basics of Planning (https://lifeskillsadvocate .com/blog/executive-functioning-skills...) 

Diane VanCleave, LCSW, serves as Youth First School Social Worker at St. Matthew Catholic School.