Tips to Help Your Child's Behavior and Ability to Work Towards Goals

Executive function is a set of mental skills that help kids control behavior and work towards goals. While partly dependent on brain development, executive function can be strengthened through practices like encouraging imagination, offering choices within limits, assisting reflection, and raising activity levels. By understanding executive function and using these strategies, parents and teachers can help kids build crucial skills for long-term success.


4/29/20244 min read

Tips to Help Your Child's Behavior and Ability to Work Towards Goals

As a parent or educator, you may have heard the term "executive function" thrown around a lot lately. But what exactly does it mean, and why is it so important for your child's development? In simple terms, executive function is a set of mental skills that enable people to control their behavior, stay focused, and work towards achieving their goals.

Research has shown that strong executive function skills are crucial for success in school, work, and life. Children who possess these skills are better able to learn in the classroom, regulate their emotions, and navigate social situations. They're also more likely to go to college, land a good job, and enjoy better health as adults.

The Three Components of Executive Function

Executive function can be broken down into three main parts, each serving a distinct purpose:

1. Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate multiple pieces of information in our minds simultaneously. It allows us to retain and utilize relevant information while performing tasks or solving problems. For example, when solving a math problem, working memory helps us hold the numbers and operations in mind until we reach a solution.

2. Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to adapt our thinking and switch between different strategies or perspectives. It enables us to approach situations from various angles and consider alternative solutions. Cognitive flexibility is particularly valuable in problem-solving and decision-making, as it allows us to explore different approaches and adapt to new or changing circumstances.

3. Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control refers to the ability to resist impulses and distractions in order to make decisions that are in our best long-term interest. It helps us override immediate desires or temptations and stay focused on our goals. Inhibitory control is crucial for self-regulation and impulse control, enabling us to delay gratification and make thoughtful choices.

The Brain's Control System

Executive function manages and coordinates our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. Executive function ensures that different mental processes are organized, prioritized, and executed effectively. It helps us stay on track, make informed decisions, and adjust our behavior based on the situation at hand. Without executive function, our thoughts and actions would be disorganized and chaotic, hindering our ability to achieve our goals.

The Role of Executive Function in Daily Life

Executive function skills are not only essential for academic success but also play a crucial role in various aspects of our daily lives. Here are a few examples:

1. Learning and Education

Executive function skills are closely linked to learning and academic achievement. They enable us to focus, concentrate, and effectively process information. Students with well-developed executive function skills are better equipped to follow instructions, organize their work, manage their time, and adapt their strategies when faced with challenges.

2. Social Interactions

Executive function skills are vital for building and maintaining positive relationships with others. They help us navigate social situations, understand social cues, and regulate our emotions and behavior. Individuals with strong executive function skills are more likely to exhibit empathy, show self-control, and communicate effectively, leading to healthier and more fulfilling social connections.

3. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making

Executive function skills are instrumental in problem-solving and decision-making processes. They enable us to analyze situations, consider different perspectives, and evaluate potential outcomes. Individuals with well-developed executive function skills are more adept at finding creative solutions, adapting to new challenges, and making informed decisions.

4. Self-Regulation and Goal Setting

Executive function skills are crucial for self-regulation and goal-setting. They help us set realistic goals, plan and organize our actions, and monitor our progress. Individuals with strong executive function skills are more likely to persevere, stay motivated, and achieve their desired outcomes.

What Can You Do to Help Your Child?

So, what can you do to help your child develop these critical skills? Here are some practical tips and strategies to get you started:

1. Encourage Imaginative Play

One of the key components of executive function is the ability to step outside of the present moment and consider different perspectives. For young children, engaging in pretend play is a fantastic way to practice this skill. As they get older, reading books and writing stories can serve a similar purpose, allowing them to explore fictional worlds and imagine themselves in different situations.

2. Provide Choices Within Limits

Another essential aspect of executive function is the ability to regulate one's behavior and make responsible choices. As a parent or teacher, you can support this by setting clear boundaries while still giving children some autonomy within those limits. For example, instead of dictating every aspect of your child's daily routine, try offering them a few options to choose from, such as what to wear or what to have for breakfast.

3. Promote Reflection and Planning

In today's fast-paced world, it's easy to get caught up in the moment and act on impulse. However, strong executive function involves taking a step back, considering the big picture, and planning ahead before taking action. You can help your child develop this skill by encouraging them to pause and reflect before making decisions, and by talking through the potential consequences of different choices.

4. Get Moving

Did you know that physical activity can actually boost executive function? That's right – getting your child's heart rate up through exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which is crucial for healthy development. Plus, many types of physical activity, such as team sports or martial arts, require children to follow rules, control their emotions, and work towards goals – all key components of executive function.

5. Model Good Habits

As a parent or educator, you have a powerful influence on your child's behavior and development. One of the best ways to promote strong executive function skills is to model them yourself. This means managing your own emotions, reflecting before reacting, and using positive discipline strategies that focus on teaching rather than punishing.


It's important to remember that executive function skills develop over time, and every child is different. Some may need more support and guidance than others, and that's okay. The key is to be patient, consistent, and encouraging, and to celebrate your child's progress along the way.

By incorporating these strategies into your daily life, you can help your child build a strong foundation of executive function skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. Whether they're solving a math problem, navigating a social situation, or working towards a long-term goal, these skills will be invaluable tools in their toolkit.

So, the next time you hear the term "executive function," don't be intimidated. With a little knowledge and some practical strategies, you can unlock your child's full potential and set them up for a lifetime of success.