Headstart for Life

What do we know about Executive Functioning?

Hey there readers! Great to see you back at HeadStart for Life’s blog, Beyond Therapy!

This time we are going to talk about Executive Functioning.

Have you ever gone on a road trip without a map? No access to google maps or Siri to direct your way to your destination because you left your phone at home. Can you imagine the frustration of not knowing where you are, how long it will take you to your destination or not knowing you may have driven passed it already? And when you finally arrived at your destination, you checked in to your hotel but couldn’t get a room because you forgot to confirm your booking. And not only that, you realised that you forgot your wallet at the gas station when you pumped gas.

Do these things sound like scenes of the novel A Series of Unfortunate Events? If only you were not in a hurry to leave the house, you would have remembered to bring your phone; planned to make sure you have a confirmation from your hotel days before your trip and made sure you had your wallet before leaving the gas station.

The skills needed to accomplish all these are called executive functions. 


What exactly is Executive Functioning?

It is defined as a group of mental skills that allow us to plan and organize, initiate tasks and focus attention on them, manage time and regulate emotions to complete tasks. For children, it is an important aspect of managing their thoughts, actions and emotions in order to get things done. These skills are necessary to control their behaviour, pause and reflect before taking an action.

There are 3 basic components of these skills:

Working Memory – The capacity to hold pieces of information in mind and use it simultaneously.



In following multi-step directions, when the teacher says, “Take out your books, turn to page 31 and read the first paragraph”, child should be able to execute it smoothly by remembering the instructions in his mind, keep track of what he has already done and what else he needed to do.

Inhibitory Control – The ability to turn down impulses so as to resist immediate temptations, and ignore distractions. This helps the child execute what he needed to do instead of doing what he wants to do.




When asked to clean up his/her toys, child starts putting all toys inside the container instead of playing every toy he/she picks up.

Another example is when a child continues to complete his homework even if his favourite show is on.

Cognitive Flexibility — The ability to move freely from one situation to another in order to adjust to changing demands, priorities, or perspectives. This allows children to adjust their behaviour depending on the situation they are in.



Child behaves quietly when he is inside the library but can be loud when playing at the playground. Another example is when child uses different tones and manners of speaking when talking to his/her parents and when talking to his/her friends.

Although, we are not born with executive functions, the good news is that we all have the ability to develop them. It begins to develop from infancy and continues into early adulthood. It is developed through meaningful experiences, social interactions and engagement to enjoyable activities.

However, some children show weaknesses in using their executive functions. They struggle to complete tasks in school, manage schoolwork and finish projects.

How do I know if my child has executive functioning difficulties?

Signs and symptoms of executive functioning issues may vary at different ages. In this article, we will only be discussing the signs and symptoms at the preschool age and primary or grade school level. Below are commonly observed behaviours in children who may have issues in their executive functions.

Organisational issues

  • Unable to maintain a clean room, desk or work areas
  • Continuously having trouble following directions and forgetting what to do
  • Inability to successfully follow simple classroom tasks (i.e. preparing an activity or cleaning up at the end)
  • Frequently mixing up and missing homeworks, does not bring home books to complete his assignments
  • Struggling to find the right information in a word problem to come up with an equation
  • Focusing on the least important thing


Time management issues

  • Struggling to finish work on time
  • Difficulty moving from one task to the next in a timely manner


Issues in managing emotions

  • Getting easily frustrated when unable to complete a task and failing to ask for help
  • Frequently showing tantrums even on the most trivial things
  • Showing aggressive behaviours instead of expressing feelings and thoughts verbally


Issues on self – regulation

  • Often blurting out answers instead of raising his hand to answer questions in class
  • Frequently giving unrelated answers to questions and unnecessary topics during class discussions
  • Often starts one task, gets distracted along the process, and almost always unable to complete the original task
  • Tends to be impulsive and often do actions that are too risky or dangerous


Issues on adjusting to different situations

  • Often insisting on doing the same plan over and over again even when it is clearly not working
  • Wanting to do things a certain way and have trouble making adjustments
  • Able to solve math problems in one way but somehow has difficulty doing so when another method is applied
  • Panics easily when routines are changed and has difficulty accepting the new changes


There is a process to follow in order to identify if your child has issues on executive functioning. If you think your child is manifesting few of the above signs and symptoms, consult with the right professionals and consider getting him assessed. Some of the professionals who can work with your child include learning specialists, occupational therapists, speech – language therapists, and special education teachers (HeadStart for Life). Psychologists may also help you understand the complexity of your child’s executive functions.

Tune in to our next article to learn more on ways on how improve your child’s executive functions.

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"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jona

Jona has a passion in educating and empowering parents and families of children of all abilities to be part of the social community. She has been working with children with special needs for more than 10 years and has special involvement in the intervention of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and apraxia/dyspraxia of speech.

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