A Guide to Executive Function

Executive function and self-regulation skills are like an air traffic control system in the brain—they help us manage information, make decisions, and plan ahead. We need these skills at every stage of life, and while no one is born with them, we are all born with the potential to develop them. But, how do we do that? The Center on the Developing Child created this Guide to Executive Function to walk you through everything you need to know about these skills and how to develop and practice them throughout life.

Step 1: Executive Function 101

If you just need a quick introduction to the basics about executive function and self-regulation, start here:

Executive Function & Self-Regulation

Get the facts about executive function and self-regulation skills—what they are, what they help us do, how they develop, and why ensuring that children learn and practice them benefits everyone.

InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

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This five-minute video shows how children use executive function skills and provides scientific insight into how those skills develop and grow, as well as what can disrupt their development.

Step 2: The Science of Executive Function

Ready to move beyond the basics? The resources below provide more details about the science behind our executive function and self-regulation skills.

Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function

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This working paper explains executive function as an air traffic control system for the brain and helps clear up some common misconceptions about the science behind executive function skills.

How Children and Adults Can Build Core Capabilities for Life

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Every day we take on the ordinary, sometimes challenging, tasks of work, school, parenting, relationships, and just managing our busy lives. How do we navigate these tasks successfully? Science offers an explanation.

Step 3: Building Executive Function Skills

The best way to strengthen executive function skills, at any age, is through practice! Here are some resources for helping children, youth, and adults do just that—as well as some suggestions for creating environments that support skill-building.

Activities Guide: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

This 16-page guide, filled with age-appropriate activities for practicing executive function skills, can be downloaded in full or you can pick and choose the age ranges you need. (Some of these guides are also available in French and Arabic.)

Building the Core Skills Youth Need for Life: A Guide for Education and Social Service Practitioners

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This two-page guide focuses on the particular needs of adolescents during this critical time for skill development, focusing on ways to manage school, work, outside interests, and social relationships.

Building the Skills Adults Need for Life: A Guide for Practitioners

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It’s never too late to learn and practice executive function skills, and this four-page guide has tips specifically designed for supporting adults and for reducing stress in their lives.

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