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Finding the Right Level of Challenge to Build your Child’s EF skills

What is This Article About? 

Children develop at different rates, and this includes their executive function (EF) development.  One of the best ways you can help your child grow their EF skills is through at-home play. This blog is chock-full of fun games and activities you can use to improve your child’s EF skills while also having fun together-time.

What is the right level of challenge for your child? What if games are too hard, or too easy? If you’re uncertain about your child’s EF level, measure it, and then use this guide to adjust your play and practice activities to hit that challenge sweet spot for maximum fun and maximum EF growth.

Before We Begin: Steps and EF Levels

In this post we refer to “Steps” and “Levels” as the progressive stages of executive function development, each indicating a child’s increasing proficiency in EF skills. The “levels” correspond to these steps, illustrating how hard the different tasks and behaviors associated with EF growth are. For a deeper understanding of how to engage your child in EF building activities, check out games with different EF levels here!

Step 1/EF Level 1:

At this initial level, a child faces challenges in adjusting their attention or behaviors when patterns change. For instance, if an object is hidden repeatedly in the same location, the child tends to keep searching there. However, as their executive function improves, they can adapt and shift attention when the hiding spot changes.

EF Breakdown-

  • Cognitive flexibility: Shifting attention from unpleasant to appealing stimuli.
  • Example: Turning away from a bright light (unpleasant) to focus on a colorful toy (appealing).
  • Working memory: Introducing simple anticipation with repeated actions.
  • Example: Learning to anticipate where things belong in a room or what directions will come from caregivers 
  • Inhibitory control: Encouraging basic self-soothing tactics.
  • Example: Reacting to emotions with simple repeated behaviors.

Step 2/EF Level 2:

At this stage, children are becoming more flexible with categorizing objects. They understand that an object, such as a plush ball, can belong to multiple categories. They can also switch from sorting one type of shape or object to another.

EF Breakdown-

  • Cognitive flexibility: Sorting games may become easier.
  • Example: Sorting one type of shape or object to another group.
  • Working memory: May have trouble remembering a complex series of steps.
  • Example: Can find a toy they have seen hidden even after a 10 second delay.
  • Inhibitory control: Engage in basic self-regulation strategies.
  • Example: More likely to follow instructions from adults and inhibit their impulsive behavior.
  • Try: Bear & Dragon at Home

Step 3/EF Level 3:

At this level, a child may start sorting objects based on more complex rules. They demonstrate different levels of EF skills in both emotional and non-emotional situations. 

EF Breakdown-

  • Cognitive flexibility: Can sort objects that conflict with their world view.
  • Example: May show different levels of skill in emotional and non-emotional settings. 
  • Working memory: Developing memory to play games with multiple rules.
  • Example: Can remember up to three pieces of information at a time.
    • Inhibitory control: Strengthening waiting abilities.
    • Example: Waiting patiently for their turn in a game or opening a gift.
    • Try: Can You Hear the Sound?

 Step 4/EF Level 4:

At this level, children often vocalize thoughts as reminders of what rules to follow and things to remember.

EF Breakdown-

  • Cognitive flexibility: Difficulty adapting their attention or behaviors when asked to do the opposite of what someone says.
  • Example: May not do the opposite of a direction.
  • Working memory: Better able to hold information in mind, their ability to engage in more complex play increases.
  • Example: Playing harder games with more rules.
  • Inhibitory control: Still rely on adults for regulating behavior, but may start to rely on themselves more.
  • Example: Controlling their own actions in emotional situations.

Step 5/EF Level 5:

At this level, a child achieves an increased ability to understand conflicting beliefs, known as theory of mind.

EF Breakdown-

  • Cognitive flexibility: Welcoming theory of mind with belief understanding.
  • Example: Considering a friend’s perspective when playing a game.
  • Working memory: Transforming self-talk into an inner monologue for expanded memory.
  • Example: Planning playtime activities mentally before executing them.
  • Inhibitory control: Evaluating others’ self-regulation abilities.
  • Example: Recognizing when a friend effectively controls impulses during a group activity.

Step 6/EF Level 6:

At this advanced stage children can switch between multiple rules. Working memory efficiently handles plans with around 5 pieces of information. Inhibitory control involves proactive inhibition and reflection on potential consequences during challenging situations.

EF Breakdown-

  • Cognitive flexibility: Effortlessly switching between rules.
  • Example: Quickly adapting to changing rules in a game without hesitation.
  • Working memory: Developing plans with around 5 pieces of information.
  • Example: Creating a detailed plan for a school project, considering various elements.
  • Inhibitory control: Embracing proactive inhibition and reflection.
  • Example: Thinking before responding, reflecting on potential consequences during a challenging situation.
Note: Executive function skills develop most rapidly between ages 3-5 years, followed by another spike in development during early adolescence. It takes practice to develop them and as these skills grow, children are able to manage more aspects of their life and environment.

Tips For Growing EF At Home: 

Decrease Stress:

  • Prioritize self-care for quality time with your child

“Guide,” Don’t “Do”:

  • Offer hints instead of completing actions

Quality Time:

  • Block off dedicated time for EF practice

Mindful Reactions:

  • Pause and reflect before impulsive responses

Acknowledge Effort:

  • Praise effort over ability


  • Understanding the different levels of EF development and tailoring activities to your child’s level may allow them to have a more meaningful learning experience at home! Keep practicing different games with your child as they progress.

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

How does your child engage with nature in their day-to-day lives? Read our summary of a study that breaks down how playing in nature can help improve Executive Function!