What You Need to Know About Executive Functioning

From planning to perseverance, today I’m talking about executive functioning skills and how to help your child develop them.

Have you ever stopped to consider all that goes into a day? The skills required to navigate our busy world?

From the second your feet touch the floor every morning, you’re thinking about what’s coming next. You’re judging how much time you have before the kids’ school day starts. When your daughter spills your mug of coffee, you adapt, breathe, dry, stay calm. And then you add “paper towels” to your mental list of groceries for tomorrow’s shopping trip. As you sit down to begin work, you tune out the whir of the heater, the bickering of your children, and the dog’s incessant barking.

How are you managing all of these seemingly simple (but actually quite complex) moments?

Executive functioning skills.

You might not even remember learning them as a child. For some children, the aquisition of these skills happens seamlessly, quietly. But for others, it’s a slower and more deliberate process. It’s a process that requires explicit teaching and evidence-based strategies.

And kids need these skills!

Executive functioning skills help them get dressed in the morning, using information about the weather and the day’s activities to make appropriate decisions. These functions are involved when your kids organize their schoolwork and pack their backpacks. When they consume cereal and fruit in the morning instead of candy. When they initiate homework without a reminder. And when they focus on it and finish it in a timely manner.

Is your child struggling in these areas?

Here’s the good news: these skills can be taught. (1)

Getting to Know the Executive Functioning Skills (and Tips to Teach Them!)

The executive functions are a group of mental processes that, together, help you regulate your own behaviors. They help you manage other cognitive skills so that you can function effectively in the world, and they are related to academic achievement. (2)

Studies suggest that individuals with certain neurological differences and disorders (e.g., attention deficit disorders, autism spectrum disorders, etc.) demonstrate challenges with executive functioning skills. (3)

Planning

When you make a plan, you’re engaging your executive functioning skills. To be successful in planning, you are forced to consider both the end goal and the components of the plan that will get you there. You prioritize steps, make decisions, and manage your time. Your child needs skills in this area in order to, say, complete all the steps involved in a book report for school. 

How to help: Break each task –– whether it’s a book report, a simple assignment, or a daily chore –– into manageable pieces or sequential steps. Use visual prompts (e.g., lists with words or pictures) to represent each of the steps, if needed. Your child might also require verbal prompts (e.g., “What else will you need to do?” or “What will come after…?”), and that is okay. Set your child up for success.

Organizing

Organization is another executive functioning skill required for success in school and in life. When you open your child’s backpack, does it look like the inside of a trash can? Does your child need to learn the valuable skills involved in sorting, categorizing, and implementing efficient and effective methods to organize both physical items and ideas or plans?

How to help: Start by creating an organizing system with your child that makes sense to you both. Provide prompts to facilitate the process. For example, while organizing your child’s backpack, you might say something like, “Let’s put all the books together” or, “What if we put all your math work in the blue folder and all your science work in the red folder?” Color codes and labels help support visual learners with organization. Checklists help keep systems in place.

Task Initiation & Perseverance

If a task is not intrinsically motivating, it’s hard to start it and stay with it. But life requires you to take part in mundane activities, even when you don’t feel like it! Work with your child now to help him or her become an independent adult.

How to help: Engage your child in the process of motivation. Explain that some activities aren’t fun, but that it’s important to do them anyway. Teach your child to self-motivate by helping him or her brainstorm a reward for task completion; this will make the task much easier to start and continue. Also, try to praise your child verbally simply for engaging in the task (as opposed to the quality of the outcome). Use a timer (ideally a visual timer) to help with persistence for a particular time period.

Attention

As discussed previously, attention (or focus) is the process by which the brain filters information around you to determine what is important. It falls under the domain of executive functioning. Many children, especially those with sensory needs, struggle with maintaining and shifting attention.

How to help: Start here. Consider increasing physical activity, reducing distractions in the environment, and offering fidget tools and toys. If you’re needing new fidgets, check out the December SensoryTheraPLAY box.

Working Memory

Working memory is an executive functioning skill that takes attention a step further. Not only does your child need to attend to salient information, they need to remember it for long enough to use it. When you ask, “What did I just ask you to do?” and your child replies, “I don’t remember,” working memory may be at fault.

How to help: Try building working memory skills with a fun game. A simple game of memory (turning over pairs of cards until they match) will train the brain. If your child is mature enough, try the classic Simon game or even Clue Junior. You can also provide support by giving your child verbal reminders.

Emotional Regulation

This executive function helps you maintain composure even when emotions threaten to derail you. Does your child struggle to stay calm and be flexible when plans change? Does he or she become so excited about an activity that impulses take over?

How to help: If possible, be proactive! Do you know the triggers that escalate your child into a state of intense anger, fear, or excitement? Talk about them ahead of time! For those unavoidable moments that can’t be anticipated, validate and name the emotion your child shows. Help him or her practice deep breathing or find a quiet and calm environment.

Metacognition

Perhaps the mother of all executive functioning skills, “metacognition,” in essence, means thinking about thinking. When someone is able to consider their own thoughts and behavior, they can participate with greater ease in all the other functions.

How to help: Begin by modeling your own thoughts and strategies aloud for your child. Talk about how you’re remembering to check the cookies as they bake, how you’ve decided when to check them, and how you only eat one (or two!) instead of the whole batch. Ask curious questions to increase self-awareness in your child.

Target Progress Over Perfection

Don’t expect perfection from your child immediately. Keep in mind that many people struggle with executive functioning skills even as independent, functioning adults.

Your child might need to practice these skills over and over again to master them. Continue breaking big tasks into small steps and sticking with systems you create that work. Keep modeling your own thoughts aloud and prompting your child gently with verbals and visuals.

Employ your own executive functioning skills to practice patience and persistence while you support the process.

Sources

  1. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/ 
  2. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-14095-001

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep36566

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