How to help your child gain ‘executive functioning skills’

back to school e serviceBY DESIREE STRIKE
Being808 Contributor

Raise your hand if you’ve said these things to your child:

• “I asked you to pick up your toys 10 times already, and you still haven’t done it!”

• “Your room looks like a tornado came through here.”

• “You were supposed to start your homework half an hour ago and you have nothing done?

• “What have you been doing this whole time?”

Got your hand up high? Probably!

Parents often have to deal with a messy room or a child failing to stay on task, and sometimes these interactions can devolve into yelling and hurt feelings.

But they don’t have to. Research shows kids who have strong “executive functioning skills” are better able to organize their day, manage their time and demonstrate positive behaviors.

So how do you help boost these skills in your child?

Here’s a look at the 11 executive skills (broken into two categories — thinking skills and behavioral skills) in kids, and some suggestions on how to foster them:

Thinking skills:

1. Planning:

What it is: The ability to create a “master plan” to reach a goal or complete a task.

Make it happen: Help your child clean her room with a plan. Start by having her make a list of no more than five things to do. Have your child cross off the items as she completes them.

2. Organization:

What it is: Having a place for everything. Some children struggle with keeping their desk or room neat and organized.

Make it happen: We have a few good tips to help with coaching kids through this below. But here’s a quick tip: Help your child organize her school work by creating special folders and labels for each subject.

3. Time management:

What it is: Meeting deadlines and knowing how long it takes to achieve a goal.

Make it happen: Set a timer and log how long it takes your child to complete her homework. That will give your child a better understanding of how much time she needs to budget for homework. You can also help your child grasp time management by breaking down homework into smaller chunks. As your child completes the chunks of work, reward her with a short break, encouraging words, even a small prize.

4. Working memory:

What it is: Using past learning and experience for a current project or a future one.

Make it happen: Help your child with memory aids, like helping them in using acronyms, chunking information or talking through the process of making connections.

school sign5. Meta-cognition:

What it is: The ability to assess and “see the big picture.” If your child makes careless mistakes and seems to not know why, they may need help from parents and teachers to learn how to analyze and evaluate their work.

Make it happen: Before doing a homework assignment, help your child create a checklist of errors to watch out for and have them refer to that checklist halfway through and at the end of that assignment.

Behavioral skills: 

6. Response inhibition:

What it is: Also known as “impulse control.”

Make it happen: If your child is rash and seems to not think before she acts, coach her to think through several options before responding to a situation.

7. Emotional control:

What it is: Knowing how to manage emotions in order to control behavior or complete a task.

Make it happen: A child that can get upset and then find ways to calm herself down has established this skill — a very important one.

8. Sustained attention:

What it is: A lot of children struggle with this, especially today because we have so many distractions to getting things done thanks to modern technology. Children must learn to focus during times when they are tired, bored or easily distracted.

Make it happen: During homework time, turn off all electronic devices, creating a quiet environment for your child to work in. Provide an incentive if your child can stay on task for a given time.

9. Task initiation:

What it is: Starting a task right away, avoiding a tendency to procrastinate by also planning out when the rest of the work will be done.

Make it happen: If your child doesn’t get to her homework right away, she may need a plan of action. Provide a visual schedule that helps her begin the first problem of her homework assignment within two minutes of the start of homework time.

10. Flexibility:

What it is: Being able to “roll with the punches” and knowing that you can change your plan if experiencing a setback or a change.

Make it happen: When the cleaning of your child’s room is taking much longer than anticipated, reorder the list of things to do so that things than can be done in a shorter amount of time are done first.

11. Goal-oriented persistence:

What it is: Having good “follow through” and accomplishing a goal despite other interests.

Make it happen: When you provide positive, specific, and immediate feedback along with encouragement throughout the completion of a task or activity, you help your child persist in accomplishing any goal.

These 11 executive skills should be developed and strengthened in the formative years. They’ll help your child in school — and in life.


Desiree Strike has a master’s degree in education and has been teaching for 15 years. She’s also a mom, and is passionate about helping parents help their kids prepare for school and life. Her new position at Island Star LLC, involves developing workshops aimed at strengthening families. For more information, visit her Facebook page.

One comment

  • This is great! Thanks for sharing! Timers have definitely worked wonders for me when teaching time management skills! We set the timer for a lot of time initially so the student finishes their task before it beeps and we can reward them for that. Then we slowly start lowering the amount of time til we get to something more reasonable for the long-term.

    Liked by 1 person

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