« Parenting

Executive Functioning Strategies - Part 1

by Rural Virtual Learning Academy

If you caught my blog post a few weeks back about how important executive functioning skills are for academic success, this article will provide you with some helpful strategies for promoting executive functioning skills for your child (and even for yourself).  As a quick review, executive functioning skills are those needed for sustaining attention, initiating tasks, planning, organizing, managing time, regulating affect, and goal-directed persistence.  These skills are sometimes called the "hidden curriculum" in schools because they are rarely taught explicitly but are critical for applying one's intellectual abilities to succeed on tasks in and outside of the classroom.  Weaknesses in executive functioning skills can have a negative impact on a child's academic, social, emotional, and behavioral functioning at school.  

Strategies parents can use to increase executive functioning skills:

  • Teach your child how to be organized.  This will vary based on your child's age.  Here are some ideas:  Toddlerhood - practice putting toys back in particular places, sorting objects, and maintaining a daily schedule.  Preschool Age - assign simple daily tasks/chores to mark off of a list, have your child practice preparing her own belongings for daycare/school each day and for weekend trips, show your child how to follow simple directions for assembling things and cooking with recipes.  School Age - keep a calendar of events that your child can help you track, encourage the use of an assignment notebook when homework increases (around grade 5), have your child generate to-do lists when accomplishing projects/tasks to break material down into smaller increments.  Be organized yourself!  Your child is watching what you do and how you manage your responsibilities.
  • Structure your home environment to support executive functioning weaknesses.  When your child is doing homework, for example, regulate the amount of stimulation she must deal with at one time (turn the tv off, limit activity of the area, etc.).  Also, divide large tasks into smaller and more manageable pieces, and provide breaks.
  • Utilize tools and visuals to assist your child's weaknesses.  Use a timer (visual timers are great for younger children and those that are nonverbal) to indicate elapsed time and so she can understand your expectations for how long something will take.  Make an outline of events or a visual schedule so your child can see the schedule of activities.  Utilize other visual supports such as signs, lists, and notecards to make tasks more concrete rather than relying on her internal processing.  (An example is posting a list of morning activities that your child is working on completing independently.  1. Make bed, 2. Put on clothing that is laid out, 3.  Eat breakfast, 4. Brush Teeth and hair, 5. Prepare backpack, 6. Let Mom/Dad know you are ready for school.)        * Provide as much detail and as many steps as your child needs to be successful (For some kids, the task of brushing her teeth may need to be broken down to include:  pull out toothpaste from drawer, put small amount on brush, run toothbrush under cold water, brush for 2 minutes - top and bottom teeth, spit out toothpaste, rinse off toothbrush, place toothbrush and toothpaste back where they belong, etc.).  As time goes on and your child is successful with the routine, shorten the list or take out details until the note can be removed entirely).  
  • Be consistent.  The more consistency your child has in her various settings the better.  Talk to your child's teacher about the strategies you are implementing at home to see if they can be carried over into school.  Perhaps your child's teacher has some strategies she can share with you to reinforce in the home environment.  Collaborate to create a consistent atmosphere for your child's skills to grow.
  • Avoid punishment when your child has setbacks with executive functioning skills.  Instead, collaborate with your child on how to work through these problems.  For a child with executive functioning weaknesses, these skills do not come naturally and need to be explicitly taught and practiced repeatedly to become automatic.  No matter how old your child is, she can be asked to identify areas of concern, generate ideas about solutions/things to practice, and can help select motivating incentives.  Having your child be a part of this problem-solving process can increase her "buy-in," self-regulation, and self-reflection which can contribute to feelings of success and personal insight.  
  • Be your child's coach of executive functioning skills.  Supervise your child following the strategies you have set up, giving support as needed and providing positive reinforcement toward reaching her goals.  Gradually fade out your support as your child becomes more independent.  Expect a slow pace of progress and be willing to be creative and try out different strategies.  Remember that these skills are important for LIFE and that the time you put in now is worth it!

In my next post, I will include strategies for supporting study skills, task completion, increasing working memory skills, and supporting emotional/behavioral regulation.

Some of this information was derived from a WSPA Sentinel article "School-Based Interventions to Promote Executive Functioning in Children" by Claire Wellborn and Betsy Grier.

Jessica Martin, Ed.S., NCSP

RVA School Psychologist & Director of Special Education & Student Services