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EF from early adolescence to adulthood

This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

You’re probably used to hearing that early childhood is the most important time to develop Executive Function skills, but many people don’t realize just how much their child’s EF skills will keep developing as they get older. The findings of the following study expand on the importance of continuous, focused EF skill development.

Before We Begin:

This article explains the study “A canonical trajectory of executive function maturation from adolescence to adulthood” Tervo-Clemmens, B., Calabro, F.J., Parr, A.C. et al. A canonical trajectory of executive function maturation from adolescence to adulthood. Nat Commun 14, 6922 (2023). The focus of this study is on understanding how executive functions (EF) develop from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. The study maps out the specific timing of different aspects of EF development.

Key Takeaways

To find out how EF skills develop throughout a person’s life, several labs measured the executive functions (EF) of individuals aged 8 to 35, using common tests to collect data. 

Let’s take a look at what the test results show us about EF skill development.

The study found that. . .

  • Adolescence is a time when cognitive and social skills mature. It is when pre-teens and teens further develop goal-directed EF skills, such as working memory, task-switching, and planning behaviors.
  • EF skills improve dramatically from age 8-15 and continue to improve from 15-18.
  • EF skills are most flexible and adaptable in youth and into adolescence.
  • EF skills are fairly mature by age 18, which is earlier than some previous studies, which found the peak closer to age 25. There was no substantial improvement beyond that age.
  • EF skills could be maturing more rapidly. However, the results might be a result of the study’s sample of mainly college students who generally have higher EF, or the specific measures the study used.

What Were Possible Issues With the Study?

No study is perfect, so let’s examine some issues that might impact these results.

  • This study did not include data from children younger than 8 years old. We know EF skills develop much earlier, with the biggest improvements happening during the preschool years. These skills can be measured using the MEFS tool. 
  • The study only used “cool” EF tasks (skills involving logic and critical analysis), such as planning. These tasks lack the emotional or motivational component of “hot” EF skills (driven by emotion), and have few consequences for successful or unsuccessful completion.
  • The study did not include any “hot” EF tasks, which are self-management skills that involve processing information related to emotion control, motivation, and rewards. These skills are typically used in emotionally meaningful and highly motivating situations.
  • These findings are most relevant to the US and similar nations, as global assessments could reveal different EF development trajectories and timings. 

Actionable Steps for Parents

EF skills can be developed no matter what age your child is. As a parent, you want to do what you can to strengthen these skills throughout your child’s life.

 Let’s look at some things that can be done at home!

  • Interacting with your child through EF skill-centered activities will help their EF skills continue to develop as they grow.

Conclusion

We know that EF skills grow and develop from early childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. These skills are important for your child’s mental and physical health. Staying up to date with resources that you can use to help your child at home will lead to your little one developing strong EF skills that help them succeed both now and in the future!