Primary Outcome

Executive functioning

Parent construct: Cognitive development

Executive functions are high-level cognitive skills that develop throughout childhood well into early adulthood.1 In fact, executive functions do not become fully mature until people reach their mid-20s,2 3 a period that presents many opportunities for improving these skills throughout development. Some examples of executive functions include working memory, attention, impulse control, goal-directed behavior, decision making, problem solving, and sensitivity to consequences. Executive functions also operate to regulate emotional responses to our environment by interpreting social cues during interpersonal interactions, coping with stress situations, executing appropriate social responses, and inhibiting inappropriate emotional reactions.4 Given that executive functions take a long time to develop fully, the focus is on indicators that reflect the extent to which the building blocks for this outcome have emerged and on influences that either promote or undermine successful development. Although these are all brain-based functions, they are highly responsive to environmental changes.5 6 7 8 That translates to the potential for significant improvements in functioning for our children with the introduction of nurturing neighborhood conditions.


By age 11, children should be able to read, do math, write, and study at a sixth-grade level in order to have a positive middle school experience. Fostering children’s abilities to reason, communicate, and understand and retain new information—both in school and at home—positively supports grade-level achievement. Maintaining attention and staying motivated are also important abilities to nurture during childhood. The makings for executive functions begin to emerge during this time of childhood, so children begin to show the ability to solve problems in their lives, take on new challenges, control their impulses, and monitor their own behavior.1 In some cases, children may lack the necessary intellectual abilities and cognitive skills to learn in traditional ways. For example, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder often need special services and different teaching methods to help them learn. In other cases, learning in the usual school environment may be especially difficult despite a child’s intellectual abilities. In all cases, children should receive the support and encouragement they need, both in school and at home, to ensure they reach their full potential. A positive elementary school experience with support from home is a key to achieving success in middle school and to preparing well for high school.

Early Adolescence

By age 14, being able to read, do math, and study at a ninth-grade level is necessary to prepare for a positive high school experience. A successful middle school environment conducive to learning is key to high school success, including being able to earn a high school diploma. Teaching tactics may differ depending on what skills the early adolescent brings to the learning environment; they show great variability at this age, particularly with respect to their level of executive functioning. These complex skills (such as problem solving, abstract thinking, goal direction, and impulse control) are rapidly organizing themselves in this age group; the extent to which they are reinforced and practiced is essential to proper development. It is very important for young people to be stimulated and excited about learning in order to ensure they attend and do well in middle school and as they begin high school, graduate, and continue with their education.


Having a high school diploma at age 18 is necessary for a positive transition into adulthood. It is key to success in many areas of life, including being able to continue education, increasing one’s chance for a good job and earnings, and maintaining overall health and wellbeing.10 Executive skills are increasingly refined in this age group, including the ability to organize behavior toward a goal; think about and move toward the future; evaluate consequences; make adaptive decisions; and attend, memorize, and control emotions.1 5 These are key milestones to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Importantly, this is also an age at which risk taking is common and, in fact, somewhat normal.9 However, these risks should be within limits! Risks that involve engaging in dangerous behaviors or taking drugs and alcohol can damage the rapidly developing brain, so it is critical that the community and home environments are conducive to healthy behavior and reign in any tendencies toward excessive risk taking. As a result, adolescents will be able to learn, be excited by what they learn, and ultimately attain more education. The higher education achieved, the more likely a person will be healthier and live longer.10 Also, when those with higher levels of education eventually become parents, they tend to have healthier babies and children than those with less education.10 Education is a key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Therefore, it is very important for young people to attend and do well in high school, to graduate, and continue on with their education.


  1. De Luca, C.R., Wood, S.J., Anderson, V., Buchanan, J.A., Proffitt, T.M., Mahony, K., Pantelis, C. (2003). Normative data from the CANTAB. I: development of executive function over the lifespan. Journal of Clinical & Experimental Neuropsychology, 25(2), 242-54.  

  2. Casey B.J. et al. (2000) Structural and functional brain development and its relation to cognitive development. Biological Psychology, 54, 241–257.  

  3. Fuster, J.M., 2002. Frontal lobe and cognitive development. Journal of Neurocytology, 31, 373–385.  

  4. Bar-On, R., Tranel, D., Denburg, N.L., & Bechara, A. (2003). Exploring the neurological substrate of emotional and social intelligence. Brain, 126(8), 1790-800.  

  5. Giedd, J.N. (2004). Structural magnetic resonance imaging of the adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1021, 77–85.  

  6. Lyon, G.R., & Krasnegor, N.A. (1999). Attention, memory and executive function. Baltimore: Brookes.  

  7. Riggs, N.R., & Greenberg, M.T. (2004). The role of neuro-cognitive models in prevention research. In D. Fishbein (Ed.), The science, treatment, and prevention of antisocial behaviors (Vol. 2). Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute, Inc.  

  8. Thadani, P.V. (2002). The intersection of stress, drug abuse and development. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27(1–2), 221–230.  

  9. Ernst M, Korelitz KE. (2009). Cerebral maturation in adolescence: behavioral vulnerability. Encephale, 35(Suppl 6), S182-189.  

  10. Egerter S., Braveman P., Sadegh-Nobari T, et al. (2009). Education Matters for Health. Commission to Build a Healthier America, September, 2009. Available online