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How to Help your Child Develop Executive Functioning Skills


I once taught a middle school student named Thomas who was smart, funny, and popular with his peers. He had a reading disability, which he had learned to compensate for fairly well, yet he was still receiving failing grades. When I spoke to his teachers to try to figure out why he was not successful, I found out that he wasn’t turning in assignments—assignments that his teachers and I had helped him with and had seen in process. Somehow, in between working on his assignments– and even finishing his assignments, he was not getting them turned in, so he was not receiving any credit for all the hard work he had been doing.  When asked, he didn’t know where the assignments were. A look in his locker helped to solve the mystery. A jumble of papers threatened an avalanche when we opened it.

Jamie, a student on the autism spectrum, had a different problem. She would pull out her assignments, stare at them for a while, then she would put it back away. Deciding where to begin was an overwhelming task and she just didn’t get started. If she did manage to get going, she sometimes would quit somewhere in the middle because it wasn’t turning out the way she had envisioned. She sometimes threw away her work or conveniently lost it rather than continue with something she was unsatisfied with. If she did get on a roll, when it was time to stop the task and move to another she often cried and refused to move on.

Ally struggled with dysgraphia and had trouble writing anything. Handwriting and spelling were a severe challenge, but content was by far the greater worry. Her writing was disjointed, veered wildly from the given topic, and was not in any logical order. Essentially, it was a jumble of disjointed sentences that were vaguely related to the topic sentence–and whatever else was on her mind at the time that made some sort of connection to the topic.

Executive Function is a set of skills that enable a person to make goals, plan projects, prioritize steps, separate the big idea from the minutia, manage time and materials, follow through and complete tasks, organize thinking, switch gears when moving from one task to another,  and utilize memory effectively. As you can imagine these are critical skills for success in school—and in life.

Executive functioning is a skill that many kids struggle with, however, almost every student that I teach with a learning disability has difficulties with executive function. I am not sure if the difficulties tend to be co-occur or if everything is just so hard for students with LD that they are just too overwhelmed to utilize effective executive functioning. Thomas, Jamie, and Ally are not unusual. An average IEP (Individual Education Plan for kids who qualify for special education services) is chock full of accommodations to even out the playing field. An accommodation is something that the student should have access to in every class throughout the day. Ones that address executive function might include:

  • Breaking down tasks into shorter steps
  • Providing checklists of steps
  • Graphic organizers
  • Provide note catcher
  • Assist with organizing tasks
  • Teach organization strategies for materials
  • Check for understanding

While these accommodation do help kids stay organized and, in theory, at least, teach kids how to organize their own task and environments, I often wonder what we can do to help kids develop these skills in the first place. According to a study from the University of Colorado Many of the interventions that we as adults implement to help kids stay on track do help when the adult is there to prompt the child, however, the goal really should be to find a way for the student to develop internally driven executive function. Below, you will find some research findings on ways you can help your child develop executive functioning skills.

Kids playing at work

Unstructured Time

The University of Colorado study points to free play as a crucial element in the development of executive function.  Our preschoolers play with friends on adult-directed playdates, our school-age kids go home to a schedule of sports and lessons. Even summer vacation is filled with adult-planned and structured activities. Kids who have more unstructured time to imagine, plan, change plans, and carry out their activities have higher levels of self-directed executive functioning skills. An excellent article Why Free Play is the Best Summer School, in The Atlantic elaborates on the benefits of free play.

Handwriting, Particularly Cursive

Learning to write in cursive also appears to develop executive functioning skills. The action of planning to where the hand needs to move next, along with how the letters connect is associated with executive functioning, memory and understanding. The New York Times article What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades by Maria Konnikova, asserts that students learn to read faster, remember more, and come up with more ideas when writing by hand.

Healthy Habits

We all know that it is important for our kids to get the right amount of sleep and exercise, and it makes perfect sense that it is important for the development of executive function in young children. Anyone who has taken a tired, hungry toddler to the grocery store will understand that a child’s ability for self-regulation is impaired under fatigue and stress.  In an article in Perspectives on Language and Literacy, The Influence of Sleep and Exercise, Emotions and Stress, and Language on the Development of Executive Function, Claudia Tober explains the implications for parents and educators. How many times is a too-late bedtime responsible for a meltdown? Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve brain function. Exercise that combines executive function with exercise such as tai chi and yoga appear to promote the activation of the brain. Stress, on the other hand negatively impacts the development of executive function. When stress levels are high, brain activity and control over actions diminishes.

Toddler Leo Makes a Friend

Language Skills

I always loved coming upon my toddlers in their crib or at play as they chattered to themselves.  Self-talk is not just funny and cute, but it is also developing vital skills. Tober points out the correlation between language development and executive function; kids with more advanced language skills appear to have better self-regulation and problem-solving skills. Young children often verbalize their actions to themselves, which aids in planning and execution of tasks. Lower socio-economic status is correlated with both poor language exposure and experience and also impaired skills in prioritizing, making associations and understanding tasks. Kids who are talked to and read to tend to develop higher language skills.

The key to developing executive functioning skills, vital for success in school and in life is pretty common sense. There is nothing that should be out of the ordinary. Kids need plenty of time to explore and try new things, plan and carry out their own ideas, and even to make mistakes and try new things. They need practice at fine and gross motor skills that also activate their brains. They need to feel safe, be secure and have healthy habits.  Then the accommodations we give them at school and home can fill in the gaps and teach better executive functioning skills and habits effectively.

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