Why is Executive Functioning Important?


By Diane VanCleave, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Some say, “If parenting does not feel like white knuckle time, you’re not doing it right.” Parenting has its complexities and challenges, and a parent or caretaker needs to provide age-appropriate guidance.

A child’s growth progresses through executive function efficiency. Executive function (EF) is the interconnection and coordination of brain activity skills, which is crucial to human development. Both parents and teachers need to be working toward a child’s healthy executive functioning.

The skill sets of executive function include 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.

Parents need to be observing and nurturing to recognize early precursors that will eventually add to academic, social, and economic success. A mastery in EF requires a child to engage in continued strengthening and practice. Without the practiced moments, parents may see meltdowns when tasks do not go effortlessly. These meltdowns can happen when children do not have the scaffolds that help them persist through failures and mistakes.

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, focusing 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 identifying colors or articulating a dialogue with the child on what they might do if they lose a toy or make a mistake.

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 to help the child develop to their full potential. The parent or caregiver has a role to play in helping their child negotiate EF throughout their lives.