During every action and moment of awareness, our brains are hard at work
– filtering out distractions, planning next steps, predicting outcomes, and controlling impulses.
This is a crucial skill that starts developing in early childhood. Executive function is often called self-regulation, but working memory and mental flexibility also fit under the same umbrella.
There is no diagnosis for delayed or impaired executive function, but symptoms often overlap with learning disabilities, autism, and ADHD. In fact, symptoms of delayed executive function are often helpful indicators to diagnose other disabilities. Abuse, neglect, and exposure to toxic stress can also disrupt healthy brain development and impact executive function. We are not born with these skills, but we do have the inherent potential to develop them.
Here are some of the warning signs to consider:
- Difficulty prioritizing tasks
- Difficulty sequencing and following directions
- Poor short-term memory
- Trouble focusing
- Mental and physical disorganization
- Poor time planning and management
- Inability to predict consequences
- Difficulty changing rules or routines
- Behavior problems
- Poor emotional regulation
The good news is, many of these deficits are easy to recognize at an early age, as early as 18 months. The brain’s “management system” continues to develop into the teenage years, but our brains are not fully formed until the mid-20s. With at-home support and professional intervention, children can make progress to strengthen executive function and improve behavior.
How can you help?
Model positive social behavior, establish routines, and create safe, stable environments. Simply practice these critical skills with your child during creative play and decrease your supervision over time. Using crafts, story time, and social games, you can model flexibility, self-regulation, and focus.
What does it look like to commit to a task, plan strategic breaks, and control impulses? Your child needs to see positive demonstrations and learn behavior associations. Over time, you will see noticeable progress! Start with external, overt intervention and watch as they strengthen skills with better internal self-regulation.
Don’t underestimate the power of cues.
For example, if your child struggles with task transitions, you can support them by outlining clear expectations and procedures. “Getting ready to leave for school” might be too overwhelming. Instead, give them more structure with visual cue cards that show a backpack, shoes, and lunch box. Practice “First ____, then ____” sequencing to celebrate small achievements and teach your child how to identify progress.
Speech therapy can help your child express themselves more clearly and communicate frustration, which supports emotional control. If your child struggles with specific skills and tasks, occupational therapy may be an effective intervention. By reducing the cognitive load, your child’s brain has more “space” to prioritize executive functioning skills.
If you notice delays in your child’s self-control, memory, sequencing, or focus, we can help. The first step is to identify the aspects of executive function that need the most improvement. Then, we can design intervention strategies that highlight strengths and target weaknesses.
Schedule a free consultation at one of our convenient locations in Arizona or sign up for teletherapy online with Therapy Tree.