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Developing Executive Functioning Skills for Life Success

Develop Executive Functioning

By Sinead Hamill

I’d like to eat that whole cake, but I know that wouldn’t be good for me. I’d love to blast my horn when I’ve been stuck in a traffic jam for hours, but I know that’s not going to get me anywhere fast or achieve anything other than irritating fellow drivers even more. My project really needs to be finished by 5pm today, but I’d much rather be out walking in the gorgeous sunshine. Does any of this sound familiar to you? Life throws many demands at us; some we’re prepared for, others hit us unawares. The level of success in which we’ve learned to deal with these challenges is an indicator of how well-developed our executive functioning skills are.

As adults, we’ve learned to distinguish between behaviours that will benefit us and our community, and those which are likely to create negative results. That doesn’t mean, however, that we always choose the best option. Impulses and desires are powerful forces, and if you have not taken the time and effort to work on and develop your willpower and self-regulatory skills, well, I wish you the best of luck!

Luckily for us, executive functioning skills or, in other words, cognitive control can be practised, strengthened and developed given the right support and experiences. These skills include:

  • Working memory

  • Emotions and impulse control

  • Mental flexibility


Believe it or not, studies indicate that individuals with better-developed executive functioning skills are far more 

likely to be successful in life than those with academic greatness alone. Today, life calls for so much more than 

facts and figures. Creativity, teamwork and looming deadlines seem to be the way of the future. With this 

knowledge, we can help prepare and educate our children at an early age with the skills necessary for them to 

achieve a happier, more successful life.

The following are tips and ideas on how we can support the development of our children’s executive functioning 


Imaginary play

Meaningful, purposeful play is a wonderful way to develop children’s cognitive skillset. Having an interest and a desire to participate plays a huge part in the learning process, and what child do you know who isn’t motivated to play? Planning and structured thinking can be introduced into their games by encouraging them to first set the scenes, characters, roles and rules. Often, children will choose to act out real-life scenarios. They will be encouraged to remember and focus on objectives whilst mentally planning structured routes to reaching their decided goals. Mental flexibility is required in order to adapt to the unpredictable actions of other participants.

Games with rules

These types of games are great for developing impulse control. Games such as ‘What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf?’ encourage listening, attention, memory recall and, most definitely, impulse control. Young children, especially, find it very difficult to take only the amount of steps directed by 'Mr. Wolf'.

Table games

Playing games such as ‘Go Fish’, ‘Bingo’ and other table games requires children to: stay focused; control impulsive behaviour by learning to wait their turn; manage their stress and emotions (depending on who is winning); and play fairly, according to the rules, for the game to be a success.


Organised thinking, focus and planning are all necessary for telling a good story. Invite children to create individual tales (perhaps using pictures or props as aids) or group stories where each child takes a turn creating a section of the story, which follows on from where the previous child left off. This is no easy task and requires a great deal of attention and flexible thinking. Asking questions, once the story is complete, will develop memory recall.


Reflecting on events and activities encourages children to review processes and outcomes. It provides the opportunity to discuss and evaluate both the positive and negative happenings in a rational, calm manner and plan for successful future activities.

So, whether you are supporting a child, are yourself a child at heart, or indeed, a fully-fledged adult, the thing to remember is that our brains are not static. As with anything, the more we practice executive functioning skills, at an appropriate developmental level, the better we will be at putting them into practice. This will allow us create our own versions of happiness and success. After all, isn’t happiness simply a state of mind?! 

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