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6 Tips to Improve Executive Functioning in Your Child

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“My teenager’s room is a total pigsty!” 

“Why can’t my child get to class on time?”

“I have a student who really has trouble planning her thoughts and creating an outline before writing…”

“What do I have to do to get my daughter to start on her homework without nagging her a million times?”

“My student is able to start a task, but after the second step he can never remember what to do next!”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar? If you have a child or young adult in your life, they probably do. And that’s because most kids, and some adults, struggle with executive functioning skills.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, “executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. The brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

Looking at those frustrating phrases above, we can pull out the following missing executive functioning skills: organization, time-management, planning, task initiative and attention to task and following directions.

(Side note: I always remember these skills as “executive functioning” because they’re the sort of skills you’d desperately want in an executive assistant. And I need one!)

Kids often struggle with this stuff because executive functioning skills “live” in the frontal lobe of the brain, which does not fully develop until age 25. In some people with (and without) disabilities, executive functioning deficits may be life-long. So what do we do about it, knowing that these skills are crucial to success in school, work, and life?

Part of the answer is giving children opportunities to practice and strengthen these skills. The other part is teaching them strategies to accommodate for their struggles in this area.

Here are 6 tips to increase executive function in your child:

1. Model executive functioning skills in front of your child.

One of the most powerful teaching tools that exists is verbal narration. It means you are talking about your actions so that someone else can hear your internal thoughts. An example: “You know, I’m worried I’m not going to remember everything I need at the grocery store. I should sit down and write a list before I go so I don’t forget something.” Simple, right?

2. Use a timer.

Many children struggle with the admittedly nebulous concept of time. What does 15 minutes mean, especially if I struggle to read a clock? Setting a timer will create an auditory prompt that it’s time to do something — get started, finish up or go somewhere else. This will help to develop time-management skills.

3. Provide directions in multiple formats.

You know what I do when I’m trying to put something together and the two-dimensional pictures in the manual just aren’t working for me? I look up a how-to video on YouTube. Providing instructions in oral and written format doubles the chances that a child can process them, and written directions allow a student to go back and check if they do forget what comes next. This will help children develop task independence and to complete tasks with multi-step directions.

4. Make a daily schedule.

The key here is doing this with your child, not for them. The mental workout happens when you ask your child to think through their day, organize it into chunks, and process what they’ll need (or what they’ll need to do) for each block. Plus once it’s written down, it serves as a to-do list for the day. This helps children process information, organize it and create a plan.

5. Categorize and label.

Again, do this with your child. Ask them to help you sort through their belongings/backpack/room and put things into groups that are like one another. Then, ask them to label the like items (such as “schoolwork,” “toys,” “art supplies” or other). This activity will strengthen the ability to process and sort, organize, and work on attention to task and time management (use a timer to set how long the student needs to work at this task).

6. Create routines.

Every day when I come home, I put my shoes under the bench in the entry way, I put my keys in the dish on the sideboard, and I bring my purse to the kitchen and set it under the island. I don’t even have to think about it — it’s automatic. Establishing routines for and with your child creates mental and physical muscle memory. This helps with organization and juggling multiple tasks. In addition to helping your child, these skills will also help you as they eliminate the daily stress associated with disorganization, poor time-management and inattention.

Have a strategy that works well for you at home? Share it with us at

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Getty image by YekoPhotoStudio

Originally published: December 4, 2017
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