The Development of Executive Function

Executive functioning is a set of higher-order mental processes that facilitate goal-directed behavior and are critical to becoming a self regulated learner. It includes abilities like organization, time management, and impulse control, among many others. All of these are essential for self-regulated and independent learners.


When it comes to executive functioning, understanding the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological aspects that underlie it can be very interesting and enlightening. Executive function skills are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which is located right behind our forehead in the frontal lobe of our brain. The frontal lobe is also responsible for other high-order mental processes like personality development. Now, you might be wondering why is this relevant? Interestingly, the frontal lobe is one of the last regions of the brain to fully mature. Full development does not occur until adulthood (approximately age 25). This is a big difference compared to other brain regions that fully develop throughout adolescence, like the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotions  


So, what does this mean regarding behavior, and in particular learning? Knowing how brain regions evolve helps us understand why younger individuals may sometimes struggle with self-regulating behaviors like impulsivity, planning, time-management, and other executive functioning skills. If you have ever heard someone complain that teenagers are impulsive or disorganized or that they get easily frustrated, frontal cortex development is one of the explanations for this phenomenon. This knowledge can help us be patient and manage expectations when dealing with students across all ages.


Still, although executive function skills continue to develop through adulthood, these skills can be improved with practice and experience. It takes hard work and explicit instruction, but the effort is worth it. Setting up routines that can help students organize and manage their time in a more efficient way, can be incredibly helpful if they can’t do this by themselves yet.


  1. National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. National Academies Press.
  2. Pascual, A. C., Muñoz, N. M., & Robres, A. Q. (2019). The relationship between executive functions and academic performance in primary education: Review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 10, Article 1582. 
  3. Williams, P. G., Suchy, Y., & Rau, H. K. (2009). Individual differences in executive functioning: Implications for stress regulation. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 126-140.
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