Whether or not you’ve heard of the term “executive function,” you use these vital skills constantly throughout your daily life. In fact, they control and regulate just about everything we do.
Put shortly, executive function skills are how we think about, process, and control our behaviors. They include our ability to:
Manage our time
Regulate our emotions and behaviors
Plan, organize, and prioritize tasks
Stay focused and follow projects through to completion
Empathize and understand different points of view
Have a strong working memory
As you can imagine, these skills are essential to living a productive life. And for many parents, they may be top of mind as their kids begin transitioning back to school. The ability to appropriately plan, manage, organize, and prioritize tasks and everyday activities is a key part of academic success.
Take homework, for example. Your child needs to be able to remember they have homework due and organize their approach to completing the assignment. They have to stay focused without being distracted. And, if the assignment is difficult, they have to remain calm and ask for help without tempers flaring.
It’s important to know that trouble with executive functions is not a diagnosis. However, these problems are common among children who have certain diagnoses, such as ADHD or a learning disability.
Children who have a tough time communicating, and who aren't reaching speech and language milestones on time, may also have trouble with executive function skills.
While executive function is a big subject with many considerations, for the purpose of this article we're focusing on how parents can help their child thrive as they return to school. In most cases, these skills won’t magically improve overnight. It’s important to work diligently with your child--as well as with their teachers or school administrators--to practice and reinforce these skills on a daily basis.
Executive function tips and exercises for different ages
As your child's caregiver, it’s important that your expectations are in line with your child’s age and developmental progress. For example, we shouldn’t expect a preschooler to complete a chore that takes a half-hour.
Here are a few helpful exercises by age to improve executive functioning:
Infants: Even at this early age, it’s still important for caregivers to reinforce good executive function habits. One example is playing the perennial favorite “peek-a-boo” game. It may seem simple (and it is), but it can help your child become familiar with the flow and rhythm of the game and use self-control as they wait for the surprise reveal.
Toddlers: Games like “Red Light, Green Light” and “Simon Says” help reinforce self-control for children. These games quickly switch between being in motion and staying still, which helps kids practice flexible thinking and the ability to attentively listen for directions.
Preschool: Playing with your child, as well as giving them chances to socialize with other children, helps them interact cooperatively. It teaches them self-regulation skills like sharing and turn taking. This requires them to remain flexible within a social environment, follow rules, and solve problems.
School age: When your child enters school, play more complex and stimulating games that require a higher level of strategy. Not only does this improve family bonding time, but it helps increase their cognitive skills such as their working memory, multitasking, and their ability to plan ahead and shift their strategic thinking.
Give your child clear instructions
This is important in all aspects of your child’s life, especially when it comes to completing school assignments and daily chores. Make sure you’re crystal clear about your expectations by providing step-by-step instructions to your child. Have them repeat the directions back to you so you know they understand.
There’s no need to bog your child down with a multitude of complicated directions. Keep it simple and straight to the point. Also, make sure your child understands not just “what” they have to do, but “why” they have to do it: “You need to complete this homework so you understand the material and can get a good grade.”
Create a “to-do” list or checklist
Some children have trouble completing tasks in a timely manner because they just don’t know where to start or what to do first. An organized to-do list can be tremendously helpful in improving your child's time management.
Whether it’s a note on the fridge, a whiteboard in their room, or a color-coded journal, keep a comprehensive list of everything you expect your child to complete--chores, homework, tasks, etc.--and when they’re due. This visual aid can help your child feel more in control, and gives them a feeling of satisfaction when they mark something off the list.
Reward your child
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! Rewarding your child doesn't necessarily mean giving them money, candy, or a new toy. Instead, it’s important for your child to recognize the difference between what they “want” to do, and what they “need” to do, with proper sequencing of events.
For example, your child wants to play with their toys, or wants to go to the playground. However, to do this, they need to first finish their homework or clean up their room. Use a simple “first... then” structure to make this clear: “First you need to finish your homework, then you can go outside and play.” This can help your child witness first-hand the positive effects of completing what’s expected of them.
Organize bigger projects into smaller tasks
The necessary steps for completing a bigger, more complicated assignment aren’t always obvious to children that have trouble with executive function. For example, filling out a worksheet is pretty simple. But what about completing a book report? To do that, your child needs to read the book, take notes along the way, write their assignment, and then turn it in on time. That’s a lot!
Some children can get so wrapped up in the decision-making process, and feel overwhelmed by tasks, that they choose to ignore or never start the assignment. You can help by breaking up these bigger projects, providing clearly defined steps ahead of time so it becomes more achievable. The same principles apply to washing dishes, for example. First you soap up the sponge, then scrub the dishes, they rinse them with water, then put them on the drying rack.
How do you know when your child needs help with executive function skills?
A child's communication abilities are related to many executive function skills. For example, in order for a child to understand what they hear and read, they need to be able to stay focused without distractions, have the working memory to retain information, and be able to use context in order to understand difficult or unknown words. In addition, children must be able to plan and organize information they've gathered in order to communicate with others clearly.
Therefore, many children who have a tough time with executive functions skills need speech and language support. To improve these skills, many families seek the professional help of a qualified speech therapist.
While these services may be provided in your child's school or a private clinic, many caregivers are choosing online speech therapy services. This allows caregivers to attend speech therapy sessions with their child, and be more engaged in their progress, so they can practice and reinforce these essential skills at home.
In addition, online speech therapy sessions can often be scheduled during nontraditional hours, such as in the evenings or on weekends. With families' busy work, school, and home schedules, that's a big perk!