The Development of Executive Functions

In the past weeks, you may have seen some information about brain development passing by on our socials. In this article we would like to highlight the development of executive functions with the help of a recently published article in the Journal of Cognition and Development. Because why does adult executive functioning look the way it does?

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Written by Jesse Muijsenberg


As already mentioned in earlier articles, `executive functions´ is an umbrella term for several cognitive functions such as working memory, inhibitory control, attention, and cognitive flexibility. The goal of many tasks included in our software tools is to improve these so-called executive functions. The previously mentioned article describes these functions as “a collection of cognitive skills that keeps goal-directed behavior on track”.  


General development of executive functions 

The brain of a newborn does not differentiate between the various executive functions yet. The first development of executive functioning is a child recognizing that the task ‘do not kick someone’, is like the task ‘do not eat this’. As the child needs to inhibit its initial response for both tasks.  When growing up, the child comes across new tasks like these every day, and as the cognitive structures and pathways develop, these tasks are more and more clustered into the well-known components of executive functions. In short, the development of executive functions is a process of adaptation to the environment, organizing learning and action.  


Attention and inhibitory control 

Newborn infants allocate their attention reflexively and find it difficult to disengage their attention. The development of visual pathways and inhibitory mechanisms allows older infants to allocate their attention voluntarily. When growing up, this voluntary control of the attention resources keeps improving. Voluntarily sustained attention becomes easier and during these periods of attention, children are less distractible by information. The disappearance of neonatal reflexes and reaching responses in the first year of life is the result of the development of inhibitory control. 


Working memory 

In the first months of an infant’s life, the speed and efficiency of encoding information increases rapidly. In the first 2 months, infants can learn the consequence of kicking an object within 4 minutes. From 2 months until 18 months, their memory storage rapidly improves. However, it is still difficult for them to store and manipulate multiple pieces of information. This memory span improves to a growth level from 4 to 12 years old. Specifically working memory improves significantly from 3 years until adolescence. 


Cognitive flexibility 

When looking at cognitive flexibility, it is known that children aged 3 do not succeed in task-shifting yet. 4-5 years old however, do start to improve on these tasks and 7-9 years old are able to easily shift between tasks.  


Training of executive functions  

In children, studies have assessed the impact of executive functioning training, for example, working memory training. In 5–11-year-olds, diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, a 12-hour working memory training program did improve the results of untrained working memory tasks. This effect is a so-called near-transfer effect. In this same study, they also found a far-transfer effect, as they found an improvement in syntax. Ibbotson hypothesizes that a far-transfer effect occurs when the trained cognitive function is anatomically closely related to the far-transfer cognitive function.  

In conclusion, environmental demands in a child’s life delay or accelerate the development of executive functions. These executive functions start very abstract but become increasingly differentiated over time.  



  • Paul Ibbotson (2023) The Development of Executive Function: Mechanisms of Change and Functional Pressures, Journal of Cognition and Development, 24:2, 172-190, DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2022.2160719 

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