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Executive function skills: Which EF skills should I see at different ages? (2023)

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

As a parent of a child with ADHD, have you noticed your child struggling with organization or follow through more than their peers or siblings?


Or maybe you are surprised by how upset they get when they feel rejected or unfairly criticized?


You've learned that all those behaviors and habits they need extra help with are known as executive function skills.


If you have been wondering what executive function skills are expected for your child’s age, this guideline of typical development may provide the understanding you need to support their development and access the resources your family needs.


What are executive function skills?

The “Executive” in executive functioning can be connected to the image of an executive director or office manager.


Imagine an office without this person present…disorganization, lack of direction and to be honest, chaos.


This “little director” in the front seat (or prefrontal cortex) of your child’s brain can sometimes be out of town or just needs training.


Just as a director is expected to manage a team of individuals through planning and organization, the executive functions are managing a person's behavior and actions.


The acronym P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E. may help to remember the important skills that make up our executive functioning skill set.

  • Planning

  • Organization

  • Self

  • Initiation

  • Time management

  • Inhibition

  • Vision & Goal setting

  • Evaluating priorities

These skills are required for independence and success, not only in school but also in home and community settings.


The executive director of the brain helps us to stay engaged, emotionally stable, and focused while pursuing daily tasks and future goals.

Image showing what are executive function skills which include planning, organization, time management and goal setting
What are executive function skills?

How do executive functioning skills develop by age?

Brain connections in the frontal lobe develop at a rapid rate from infancy through early childhood, creating the building blocks for executive functioning abilities.


Young children learn these skills primarily through observations through:

  • Exploratory free play and observations of play

  • Social interactions with friends and family

  • Sensory integration (exposure to sounds, scents, tastes, textures, colors, etc.).

These activities develop the ability to understand daily life patterns, express wants and needs, and advocate for themselves. At a very young age, children observe and begin to understand behavioral expectations through exposure to visual and auditory cues.


When children develop language and motor skills they transition from the observation stage to being active participants, with direct support from caregivers.


Children begin, and are explicitly taught to exhibit:

  • Emotional regulation (controlling tantrums, self-soothing)

  • Social skills with others and understanding of self

  • Independence and self-direction (choosing toys, playing independently)

  • Basic problem-solving skills

  • Inhibition skills (waiting their turn, looking for parent approval)

What happens in elementary school?

Elementary-aged students experience an increase in expectations of social, emotional, and cognitive control.


They learn to control emotional impulses within the classroom, organize and plan their short-term school work and engage their working memory skills through increasingly difficult performance tasks.


They begin to sustain their attention for extended periods of time, through at least a 20-minute lesson or activity.


What happens in middle school and high school?

Middle school and high school students start exhibiting higher levels of executive function skills utilizing a greater degree of working memory, with minimal support or direction, which will be outlined in more detail further on.


What happens in college?

College is much like high school, except that now students are expected to not only independently manage school, but also manage independent living (in many cases).

When it came to completing four years, students with ADHD again lagged. Of those not taking medication, 49% either graduated or finished eight semesters, versus 59% of the students without ADHD.

It is common for students with ADHD to struggle in their first year of college. To learn more about how to support this transition, check out the article, Transitioning to college: 3 signs your student with ADHD is struggling (and how to help) .


How does ADHD affect executive function?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts self-regulation, including emotional, cognitive, and impulse control. The frontal lobe of the brain is the center for controlling these impulses, which directly affects a person’s executive function skills.


According to a ranking list of influences to student achievement, ADHD is the #1 negative influence. This suggests that students with ADHD struggle to perform and be successful in academic tasks at the same rate as their peers.

Grey image showing what impact does ADHD have on learning according to global study by John Hattie
What impact does ADHD have on learning?

Executive function skills are required to be successful in the academic environment and have been found to be the greatest predictor of school success, beyond early math or reading instruction.


How do I know if my child has executive function issues?

Children are all in a process of developing skills of independence. It is important to not assume there are deficits in your child's executive function skills just because they need direction from time to time.


However, if you see your adolescent child...

  • Consistently leaving important items behind

  • Struggling to initiate assignments of prior known content

  • Having difficulty understanding directions or sustaining attention

  • Lack of time management skills both at home and school

  • Appearing disorganized and scattered, with very limited organization skills

  • Lacking impulse control or exhibiting emotional instability in comparison to their same-age peers

...it may be appropriate to consider the possibility that your child's executive functioning skills are not where they should be.


At what age does executive function fully develop?

Studies of executive functioning development have shown a rapid growth period from ages 3-5, with a plateau around 25-30.

Chart showing how executive function skills develop from birth to age 100
How do executive function skills develop?

These findings support research on the human brain, which appears to fully develop around the age of 25.


Therefore, the prefrontal cortex, which houses the majority of executive function processes, is in an active state of development from birth until these late stages of adolescence.


What age do executive function skills finish maturing?

Though brain development research would suggest that our executive functioning skills have finished developing at age 25, further studies show that the brain has the ability to create new neural networks through repeated practice of new skills, also known as neuroplasticity.


This is great news!


The brain can continue to develop executive function skills through all stages of life. We are not stuck with the skills we developed before the age of 25.


We have the ability to strengthen and create new neural pathways and develop the skills needed to be productive, independent, and successful adults.


Executive function skills by age


Planning

Middle School students should be able to:

​High schoolers are expected to

Follow timelines and rubrics for short and long-term goals/assignments.

Create or meet goals through independent planning for short and long-term projects.


Organization

Middle school students should be able to:

  • Locate textbooks and tools for work completion

  • Follow an organizational system such as a binder or folder in each class

  • Keep backpacks or lockers organized

High school students should be able to:

  • Create independent organization systems

  • Develop personal checklists for work

  • Utilize technology platforms or personal planners

  • File away important documents to retrieve at a later time

Self-management (emotional control)

Middle school students should be:

  • Learning to control anger, frustration, or excitement to levels that do not disrupt the learning of others (some direction from adults may still be needed).

  • Aware of consequences for inappropriate behaviors that are explicitly taught

  • Receptive to positive behavioral interventions that are implemented

High schoolers should be able to:

  • Act similarly to adults, independently managing and expressing their emotions, appropriate to the environment and setting.

  • Demonstrate flexible thinking, independently.

  • Have a clear understanding of consequences and positive outcomes for following expectations and protocols.

Initiation

Middle school students should be:

  • Task initiating independently with clear structure, including expectations, checklists, and time limits within a class period.

Teachers and parents can support these skills by:

  • Providing step-by-step prompting or scaffolding

High schoolers should be able to:

  • Be given assignment dates and initiate tasks independently.

  • Understanding of consequences given when tasks are not complete, with minimal, if any, support along the way.


Time management

Middle school students should be:

  • Able to follow a schedule of activities involving homework, play, and social engagements.

  • Identify the time it takes for each activity.

Teachers and parents can support these skills by:

  • Monitoring schedules and portals

High school students should be:

  • Planning their own social or work schedules.

  • Adjusting accordingly, allowing adequate time to complete tasks or transition from one to the next.

Inhibition

Middle school students should be:

  • Slowing down and checking their work

  • Showing self-control around unhealthy eating habits, distracting their peers or minimizing screen time to complete school work.

High school students should be:

  • Learning to wait before expressing opinions

  • Choosing work or school tasks over social activities

  • Editing and revising work without prompting

Visualizing outcomes (goal setting)

Middle schoolers:

  • Typically do not make life goals or envision future plans independently.

  • Can follow long-term goal planning with advisors.

  • May envision future plans without considering the steps needed to make them a reality.

High schoolers:

  • Begin planning future goals and can identify steps needed to reach them.

  • May adjust future visions based on life experiences.

  • Often independently seek out support or wisdom from others about potential jobs or life plans.

Evaluating priorities

Middle school students are developing an understanding of what priorities are while high schoolers are acting on decisions based on priorities.


High school students may have already experienced consequences for choosing less important priorities over others. High schoolers often think through the pros and cons before decision-making.


What should I do if my child is not demonstrating age-appropriate executive function skills?


Executive dysfunction can feel discouraging when the list of skills needed seems far out of reach. However, you may find your child is performing similarly to his or her peers.


It is also exciting to know that individuals can continue to develop their areas of need through practice and repetition.


Executive function coaching can help your child to practice executive functioning skills and grow in ways you never thought they could!


To schedule a free consult to learn if executive function coaching is right for your child, visit Executive Function Specialists.


Further Reading


About the author

Kelsey Sinclair is an executive function specialist with EFS. She was a special educator for over 10 years in public school settings. She completed her masters degree in Education with an emphasis on educational therapy to support students with executive functioning deficits. She specializes in social/emotional skill development and provides support to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Kelsey utilizes a strengths-based approach to coaching, supporting her students toward independence and a positive self-concept.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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