The Development of Executive Function in Early Childhood

By Lisa Fritscher
Executive function typically spikes during early childhood.
Executive function typically spikes during early childhood.

Executive function is a broad term that encompasses the tasks involved in self-regulation of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Strong executive function is critical to successfully navigating the complex adult world. Although executive function peaks in the 20s and 30s, researchers at Harvard found that the sharpest rate of growth occurs from birth through age 10, with a dramatic spike between the ages of 3 and 5.

Early Childhood

Developmental theorist Erik Erikson defined early childhood as the stage of development that occurs from ages 2 through 6. This closely mirrors the ages during which executive function development is most rapid. According to Erikson, the central conflict of early childhood is initiative versus guilt. Children who successfully complete this stage learn independence in planning and performing tasks and solving problems. Strong executive function skills are required for independence to develop.

Executive Function Tasks

Educational therapist Aimee Yermish defines executive function as a CEO that resides in the frontal lobe of the brain and manages the complex systems involved in daily life. The Harvard researchers, including Center on the Developing Child director Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff and Dr. Pat Levitt, Science Director for the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, describe executive function as an air-traffic controller system at a busy airport. There is no single list of tasks involved in executive function, but Yermish lists several tasks that appear in multiple sources. These include activities as diverse as sustaining attention, time management, task initiation, flexibility and impulse control, among others.

Age Norms

Child development professor Dr. Philip Zelazo noted that the majority of children follow a basic progression. For example, in general, the executive function of 2 year olds is markedly different from that of 4 year olds. At 2, most children are able to follow simple verbal instructions, but when presented with a list of rules, they tend to fixate on one or two rules. By age 4, most children can keep two sets of incompatible rules straight and even generate a new rule that explains when to use which set. However, children develop at different rates. Rapid or slow development of executive function skills does not necessarily indicate a problem. Check with your pediatrician if your child seems to be developing much more quickly or slowly than his peers.

Executive Function Disorders

Executive function disorders are often linked to such conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders, which include Asperger’s syndrome. In addition, some experts, including psychiatry professor and ADHD expert Dr. Larry Silver, believe that executive function disorders might actually be a separate condition. This contrasts with Dr. Zelazo’s findings that different disorders result from the disruption of different parts of executive function. Doctors Shonkoff and Levitt, with the rest of the Harvard team, found a chemical and neuronal cause for executive function disorders, noting that adverse conditions during childhood alter the development of the prefrontal cortex and potentially lead to these disorders. All the experts agree that early recognition and treatment of executive function disorders is necessary for the best adult outcomes.

About the Author

Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer specializing in disabled adventure travel. She spent 15 years working for Central Florida theme parks and frequently travels with her disabled father. Fritscher's work can be found in both print and online mediums, including She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Florida.