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 define how we cognitively process and control our behaviors. They include our ability to:

  • Effectively manage our time
  • Pay attention
  • 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
  • Solve problems
  • Multitask
  • 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 - whether they’re attending the classroom virtually or in-person. The ability to appropriately plan, manage, organization, and prioritize tasks and everyday activities is a key part of academic success. Take homework for example. Your child needs the ability to remember they have homework due, organize their approach to completing the assignment, stay focused without being distracted and, if the problems they’re solving prove difficult, remain calm and seek the help without tempers flaring.

It’s important to know that trouble with executive functions is not a diagnosis. However, they are common among children that have certain diagnoses, like ADHD or a learning disability. Children who also have difficulty with communication, and are not reaching speech and language milestones appropriate for their age group, may also have trouble with executive function skills.

While executive function is a big subject with many considerations, for the purpose of this blog I’m going to focus 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 that parents work diligently with their child - as well as their teachers or school administrators - to practice and reinforce these skills on a daily basis.

Know Your Child’s Developmental Level

As parents, it’s important that our expectations are in line with our child’s age and developmental progress. For example, we shouldn’t expect a preschooler to complete a half hour chore. Here are a few helpful exercises by age:

  • Infants: At this early age, it’s still important for parents 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 exercise self-control as they wait for the surprise reveal.

  • Toddlers: Games like “Red Light, Green Light” and “Simon Says” also 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 socializing them to other children, helps them interact cooperatively and 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 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, and have them repeat them back to you to ensure comprehension. There’s no need to bog your child down with a multitude of complicated directions - keep it simple and straight to the point. Finally, make sure your child understands not just “what” they have to do, but “why” they have to do it: “You need to complete this assignment so you can get a good grade.”

Create a “To-Do” or Checklist

Some children can have trouble executing tasks in a timely manner because they just don’t know where to start or what to prioritize. 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! By rewarding your child, I don’t necessarily mean giving them money or 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 has 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 daunting 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.

Professional Help

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 the ability to stay focused without distractions, have the working memory to retain and comprehend information, and demonstrate the ability to use context in order to understand difficult or unknown words. Additionally, children must be able to plan and organize information gathered to communicate with others in a clear and effective way.

Therefore, many children that experience difficulty with executive functions skills require speech and language support. To improve these skills, many families seek the professional help of a qualified speech-language pathologist. While these services may be provided in your child's school or a private clinic, many parents are choosing to seek online speech therapy services. This allows parents 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. Additionally, online speech therapy sessions can often be scheduled during non-traditional hours that done interfere with school or work schedules, such as in the evenings or on the weekends.