Home / The Executive Function Blog

Executive Function Stages and Ages

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

Parents, do you wonder how EF looks at different ages? Find out in a quick read with games for any age! 

Objective:

In this article, we’ll examine typical EF skills by age and simple activities to support those skills. We’ll also highlight the importance of your own EF skills when helping your child strengthen theirs. Let’s go!

 Infants (0-12 months):

  • Cognitive flexibility- Swapping focus when things change is a big challenge! Infants can shift their focus from unpleasant things to those they find more appealing.
  • Inhibitory control- Infants look to caregivers for regulation. Some self-soothing tactics develop.
  • Working memory- Information is stored in small amounts for short periods of time. Older infants begin to anticipate repeated actions.

Let’s Play! Sensory Exploration Basket:

EF Skill Practiced: Sensory exploration

 

  1. Grab a soft container or lined basket.

  2. Add toys or bits of fabric with different textures and colors.

  3. Allow your infant to handle the objects.

  4. Gently introduce new objects to encourage more exploration.

 

 Toddlers (12-24 months):

  • Cognitive flexibility- Flexibility increases, allowing toddlers to categorize objects in multiple ways.
  • Working memory- Complex patterns of activity are tough! Your toddler notices you doing them and also understands when you break the pattern.
  • Inhibitory control- Basic self-regulation strategies become more advanced. Toddlers still seek your directions and support for control.

Let’s Play! Shape Sorting Fun:

EF Skills Practiced: Cognitive flexibility, working memory

 

  1. Assemble toys or objects with different shapes and some small containers or baskets on a blanket or mat.

  2. Designate each container for a different shape. Model which shape goes in which container and name the shapes with your child.

  3. Ask your child to sort all of one shape into its container.

  4. Repeat with the remaining objects until everything is sorted

 

Early Preschoolers (2-3 years):

  • Cognitive flexibility- Flexibility continues to increase. By age 3, EF skills vary within “hot” (emotional) and “cool” (non-emotional) situations.
  • Working memory- Memory has increased to allow children in this range to play games with multiple rules and keep 3 pieces of information in mind.
  • Inhibitory control- Waiting is possible, even in exciting situations! Early preschoolers can wait their turn in a game and open a gift

Let’s Play! Rule-Based Shape Sorting Game 

EF Skills Practiced: Cognitive flexibility, working memory

 

  1. Assemble objects with different shapes, colored paper, and some small containers or baskets on a blanket or mat.

  2. Explain the sorting rules. For example: “Today, we’re going to sort shapes, but we’ll use different rules. For red, put in all the round shapes; for blue, put in all the square shapes; and for yellow, put in all the triangular shapes.”

  3. Show a shape that fits multiple rules (e.g., a round red ball). Discuss how it could fit into both the red and round categories.

  4. Encourage your child to start sorting shapes based on the given rules.

 

 Preschoolers (3-4 years):

  • Cognitive flexibility- Doing the opposite of what is asked of them is a challenge for this group.
  • Working memory- Preschoolers practice “self-talk” to keep rules and information in mind. Playtime gets more complex!
  • Inhibitory control- Self-regulation increases, particularly in “hot” situations.

Let’s Play! Opposite Day Challenge
EF Skills Practiced: Cognitive flexibility, working memory, inhibitory control

 

  1. Lay out colored cards or paper in different areas of the room, each representing a specific action.

  2. Explain that today is “Opposite Day,” and the goal is to do the opposite of what the cards indicate.

  3. Show a card with the action “jump” and demonstrate doing the opposite action.

  4. Pick a card and perform the opposite action, then encourage the child to do the same.

  5. Introduce a memory element by displaying multiple cards and asking the child to remember the opposite actions for each.

 

Kindergarteners (4-5 years):

  • Cognitive flexibility- Welcome to theory of mind! Four-year-olds can think about their own beliefs as well as the beliefs of others.
  • Working memory- Self-talk becomes more of an inner monologue. Working memory expands to 4 pieces of information at play.
  • Inhibitory control- Kinders understand inhibitory control well enough to evaluate other’s self-regulation abilities.

Let’s Play! “In My Shoes” Role-Play
EF Skills Practiced: Theory of mind, working memory, self-regulation
 

  1. Explain that today, the child will have the opportunity to step into different roles and understand how others may think or feel in various situations.

    Talk about the concept of theory of mind, explaining that it involves understanding one’s own beliefs and recognizing that others may have different beliefs.

  2. Provide scenario cards or read aloud written scenarios that involve conflicting beliefs or emotions. For example, “You want to play outside, but your friend wants to play inside.”
  3. Assign roles to the child and yourself for the role-play. Encourage them to express their beliefs and understand the conflicting beliefs of the other role.
  4. During the role-play, prompt the child to express their thoughts and feelings while considering the beliefs of the other person in the scenario.
 

 School-agers (5-12 years):

  • Cognitive flexibility- Switching between rules is easy for this age group!
  • Working memory- Working memory is similar to that of adults; around 5 pieces of information at once. School-agers begin creating more complex plans.
  • Inhibitory control- Proactive, rather than reactive, inhibition takes over. This age group can also inhibit automatic responses and reflect on their actions.

Let’s Play! Dynamic Rule Switching Game
EF Skills Practiced: Cognitive flexibility, working memory, inhibitory control

 

  1. Lay out colored cards or paper in different areas of the room, each representing a sorting category.

  2. Place a variety of objects or toys in the center of the room.

  3. Explain that the rules for sorting will change dynamically. For example, start with sorting by color, then switch to sorting by shape after a set time.

  4. Start a timer and instruct your child to sort the objects according to the initial rule (e.g., color).

  5. After a designated time, announce the switch to a new rule (e.g., shape). The child must adapt quickly to the new rule.
     

How Do My EF Skills Impact My Child’s?

Being mindful of your child’s level of executive function skills is a critical part of helping your child increase their own. The stresses of day-to-day life can leave anyone feeling more frazzled and less focused! Consider these points before engaging youngsters in EF-building activities: 

  • Decrease stress- Think of it as putting on your own oxygen mask first! Set aside adequate self-care time to increase the quality of the time you spend with your child.
  • “Guide”, don’t “do”- It can be tempting to complete an action if your child is struggling. Instead, give some helpful hints!
  • Set aside quality time- Though many EF activities are quick and simple, your own EF skills can become overwhelmed by multitasking. Block off a certain time each day to focus on practice.
  • Be mindful of your own EF- Pause and reflect before impulsive reactions.
    Acknowledge frustration and provide support- This is a great time to model reflection! Be sure to praise effort rather than ability.

Additional Ideas & Resources:

Check out these courses to learn more about executive function!

What Is Executive Function?

Understanding Executive Function

Want to learn more about executive function skills? Take our free online course.