5 Executive Functions and How to Support Them at Home
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Executive functioning skills refer to the skills that help people thrive and face everyday challenges as well as long-term challenges so that they can meet their goals.
These skills include things like:
In school, kids are often taught to focus on the “what” - the content, the vocabulary, the math problem-solving steps.
Executive functioning skills provide the “how” - how kids can successfully transform new vocabulary words into words they know and can recall, or how they can persist through a challenging math problem, or how they can focus on learning a new experimental procedure in science.
Kids aren’t born with these skills and don’t develop them without support; instead, they need scaffolding, modeling, and feedback to help them learn these skills.
What it means: Keeping track of belongings and tasks in a way that creates peace & confidence (ex: knowing where school supplies are and being able to easily grab them when needed).
How to support your child in organizing:
Step 1: Identify the differences between organized and disorganized. Use visuals as needed; you can take a picture of what it should look like when their backpack is ready at the door for the next school day. Or if your child is older and feels like that is too elementary for them, you can talk with them about what it would look like if all of their things were ready for school the next day and help them create a checklist.
Step 2: Identify designated places for items TOGETHER - don't just assign a place or system.
See our latest blog post on organization to help with this.
Step 3: Get specific about where things go in designated places and discuss why they are there.
For example, shoes are always taken off by the door or in the bedroom
(designated place), but should be left in a basket or in the closet (specific) so
the family doesn’t trip over them. If shoes are taken off somewhere else, they
should be left in a corner (flexibility), since that also keeps people from
tripping over them.
Tip: Allow for change and flexibility within these spaces, the neurodivergent brain craves novelty - so sometimes Step 2 and 3 may require a bit of flexibility and change.
2. Time Management
What it means: Understanding time and how to use it effectively
How to support your child in managing time:
Step 1: Identify the basic units of time - second, minute, hour, day, month, year. This may sound elementary, but older kids benefit from having discussions about different scopes of time as well. For example, if you ask, “Do you have any homework today?”, they may say no. But if you ask, “What’s coming up for you next week?” they may remember they have a biology test. Then you can ask them, “What’s one thing you could do today to help you prepare for that test?”
Step 2: Practice completing tasks in an allotted amount of time. For mundane tasks, try a "beat the timer" set up. Timers can also help kids gain a more accurate understanding of how long things take - which leads us to step 3!
Step 3: Once one assignment can be completed in a certain amount of time, work on estimating how long things might take. Record your prediction of how long an assignment will take and then compare how long it actually took. Example: Understand that there are minutes that make up chunks of time and try to see how long it takes. While waiting for something to heat up in the microwave, or during a pause in a video game, try to complete one small task like emptying the dishwasher or picking clothes up off the floor. Time yourself to see how long it takes!
Tip: Assign 2-3 tasks with a further deadline, implement reminders and checklists as needed.
What it means: our ability to identify and manage future-orientated tasks
How to support your child in planning:
Step 1: Use a checklist for listing out steps for familiar tasks. For example, kids can go through a checklist after school where they reflect on the school day, check Google Classroom, turn in any missing assignments, check their school email, and fill out their agenda with any remaining tasks.
Step 2: Discuss the order of activities in a logical sense for a familiar task while looking at cause and effect. For example, on the checklist for what to do after school, filling in the agenda is the last step because the earlier steps allow them to search for the information first.
Step 3: Apply this principle to a new task. Use timers for tasks longer than 4 steps. Example: Have lists around the house for things to be done in each area. In the bathroom, have a list of steps for brushing your teeth and washing your face. In the bedroom, have a list of steps for your nightly routine, in the kitchen have a list of steps for how to load and unload the dishwasher. Once you can get these steps down, you can make a choice board to allow for flexibility within these areas.
Tip: Use a daily planner, identify the goal for the day, and use a checklist to help accomplish the goal.
4. Focusing / Sustaining Attention
What it means: Paying attention for sustained durations of time and focusing on tasks until completion.
How to support your child:
Step 1: Take breaks WITH PHYSICAL ACTIVITY and no screens.
Step 2: Test out different times for peak attention - figure out which times of day are most productive and work with your brain, not against it!
Step 3: Practice staying focused in a designated location Example: During a long study session, set timers to take breaks every 10-15 minutes, with a 3-5 minute pause to go check the mail, walk around the block, or do some stretches on the floor. If you find that right after school is tricky for setting multiple work timers, try working closer to bed or first thing in the morning. Once you find your peak focus times, the timers will become easier to use.
Tip: Just because certain times are stressful to you, doesn't mean they will be for your kid. Allow them to experiment with times that work best for them! You can also experiment with adding things they enjoy into the session. Many people use rewards for after they’ve accomplished work, but kids can get a lot of benefits from enjoying their reward while they work. That could include listening to music, eating their favorite snack, or doing homework outside.
5. Self Monitoring
What it means: being able to examine one’s thoughts and behavior and make adjustments in the future.
How to support your child with self monitoring:
Step 1 & 2: Check in and Check out - How do you feel at the start of a task, What can get you to feel more confident in it, how do you feel now that it's completed, what worked/didn't work?
Step 3: Use self talk when facing difficult problems Example: Before beginning your homework, think about how you're feeling going into it. If you're feeling stressed, gather resources that might help you calm down - chewing gum, a blanket, a comfy pillow etc. Set a timer (as discussed before) to work for at least 5 minutes and check in with yourself again. Maybe you need water or a snack to continue working. When you've completed the task, check out with yourself - how do you feel now that it's over?
Tip: Kids may need support with this process before they can implement it on their own. Ask them how they're feeling before they begin each task to see where they're at – most kiddos do well gauging themselves on a scale of 1-5 (bad to good).
Want to know more about what signs to look for in your middle or high school child's executive functioning development? Grab our free executive functioning quiz!