Why Are Executive Function Skills so Important for Kids to Learn?
Updated: Jul 30
It’s our third week digging into the Brookings Institution report about the skills kids need to be prepared for the workplace of the future. They highlight 6 C’s in their research - collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence.
This week we’re taking a closer look at the third C - Content.
When you think about the “content” kids are learning at school, you likely imagine words, math facts and other pieces of information our kids acquire from their reading, math, science and social studies classes. And thinking back on my learning journey, we memorized a lot of this content when we were in school!
But the report encourages us to consider a broader definition of content and to look at the foundational skills kids need in addition to these learning facts. It focuses specifically on a group of skills that support a student’s learning, called executive function skills.
Having strong executive function skills helps kids focus at school, stay on task, be persistent when solving problems and understand how to manage long-term assignments and projects. The bottom line, kids with good executive function skills do better in school.
But these skills aren’t limited to academic achievement. They expand into the workplace as well. Adults with well-developed executive function skills are likely to be more successful working in teams, taking on leadership roles, making healthy living choices and being more successful in the workplace.
Development of executive function skills can start long before kids enter kindergarten, and likely need to be nurtured throughout our lives. Here’s a look at some ways we can help cultivate these skills in our kids at home.
Why Are Executive Function Skills so Important?
Many research studies measure a child’s executive functioning as a benchmark in kindergarten readiness. There’s also quite a bit of data that shows a direct correlation between how strong a child’s executive function skills are at age 5 and how well they do in math and reading in the future.
This blog from the Childhood Collective breaks down the skills by age group to help parents understand where their child should be in their development. Or if you prefer a more visual description, check out this skills development chart by Life Skills Advocate.
It’s important to note if your child is struggling with executive function this may be a symptom of a learning difference like ADHD or dyslexia. If your child constantly seems disorganized and has difficulty completing tasks, consider checking in with their teacher to see if that pattern shows up at school too.
How to Nurture Executive Function Skills at Home
Executive function skills are the abilities in our brain that help us complete everyday tasks. Consider your kids for a moment. How many of them have natural task management and organization skills? I’ll admit our four kids are all quite different in the development of their executive function skills. And our youngest is without a doubt the strongest in the group.
Here’s some resources to help you nurture these skills in your kids at home.
One of the best resources we discovered is from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. They have an extensive guide you can download which describes a variety of activities and games you can do at home with your child based on their age, beginning at 6 months and all the way through their teenage years.
The ability for kids to pay attention is one of the strongest predictors of future achievement in math and reading. Encourage activities that help build attention and concentration skills like puzzles and mazes. For older kids try sudoku, wordle or chess.
Working memory involves keeping in mind the information you need to complete a task. Things like routines and note taking can help kids with their working memory skills. For teens that need a better note taking process, consider trying the Cornell Notes method.
And let’s not forget our needs as parents too. Managing work, school and home life can be pretty chaotic at times, and the last couple years are no exception. Even our most organized friends likely need to brush up on their executive function skills from time to time.
One of my most favorite resources for improving productivity is Getting Things Done. The concepts are simple and you can apply them to all aspects of your life to help you eliminate chaos and better manage your time.
Join the Discussion
One of the key takeaways from my research this week is that executive function skills need constant nurturing. As stress levels increase at work or home, it’s not unusual to lose our ability to stay focused, keep our emotions in-check, and stay on task.
What are your best tricks to keep you on task during stressful situations?
About the Author
Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.