10 Executive Function Tips For Your Toolbox

We all use executive function strategies and skills each day of our lives. In fact, we use these skills many times over, even before we leave the house for school or work.

The minute we open our eyes and glance at the clock, we’re deciding whether we have time to hit the snooze button. Then we choose what clothing is appropriate for the weather. Then we prioritize what to make for breakfast depending on our time restraints. And then, we have to remember what we need to bring along for the day’s activities. Oh, and what about the flexibility we need to deal with the fact that our favourite shirt is still in the laundry!

Executive FunctionBut, what about our kids? How do they manage all these tasks? Is it even possible for them to develop the executive function skills needed for academic and life success?

According to Mather, Goldstein and Elkund (2015), it IS possible!

“Children aren’t born with these skills—but they are born with the potential to develop them.”

In our continued quest to teach kids how to learn, we need reminders for how we can help them develop strategies for success in their academic and personal lives! When we hit a wall, let’s reframe our thinking and develop a new strategy!

Developing strategies is the key to unlocking these skills. As your kids learn these strategies for themselves, they are promoting executive function skills and preparing for future success in all areas of their lives.

Let’s uncover 10 tips to help your child refine these skills:

  1. Visual Reminders – You can use photographs, illustration, or icon to represent the required task. Put up a visual list of their morning chores or their bedtime routine. Visual prompts increase our child’s autonomy and independence and decreases reliance on verbal prompts. As parents, we all want to nag less, right?
  1. Time Management Tools – Learning that time keeps ticking is a difficult concept for our kiddos. Use an analog clock to help your child understand the concept of time. Estimate how long a task will take. Use a calendar and block off days and hours (chunking) to help them plan out their to-do list.
  1. Graphic Organizers – Use visual and graphic displays to organize your child’s ideas for any project or assignment. First, gather all their thoughts in a brain dumping session, then categorize the topics, and finally put them in a logical order. You are helping them get all their amazing ideas out of their head, onto the paper and ready for execution!
  1. Practice Flexibility – Adapting to new situations and dealing with change can be a challenge for children and adults alike! Help your child practice flexibility to approach tasks differently. Encourage them to try the activity in another way! There is always another way to achieve the goal.
  1. Organization – Developing and maintaining organizational systems will be essential for your child’s lifelong success. Help your kiddo get organized using checklists. Ink the lists! Colour can be magical! Use different coloured files for different school subjects. 
  1. Building Memory – Working memory is the ability to remember past information and incorporate it into something new. Try new ways for remembering lists or facts – by reciting orally or recording, drawing pictures, attach meaning (novelty) or chunking information. 
  1. Self-Monitor – Help your child check and recheck the answer, so they take ownership of their work. Recheck the expectations of an assignment. Track their own performance. Students with intrinsic motivation and growth mindsets usually set learning goals and focus on learning for the sake of learning. 
  1. Goal-Setting – The ability to see the big picture, and then to break it down into steps is a skill that can be developed early on. Encourage your child to set a realistic and measurable goal and help them successfully achieve it! 
  1. Planning & Prioritizing – This step is also related to goal setting. Help your child develop a strategy before starting a task and strategies to continue the task despite distractions. Figuring out what is most important and where to begin is necessary for success. 
  1. Attention – Developing attention skills and focusing on a task for a particular time period is a much-needed skill in our face paced world. Puzzles and board games are great tools to expand attention spans for adults and children. When focusing on deskwork is a challenge due to background noise, you can use noise-canceling headphones.

These 10 executive function skills are essential for managing our daily lives and are important skills for our kids to learn, as well.

Executive Functioning Skills must be explicitly taught, practiced often, and coached.

We, as adults, can coach our kids on this journey of learning. We become their ‘surrogate frontal lobe’ and guide them onwards one step at a time to find strategies that work for them, forever! I have seen students grow in these skills, and become independent, confident learners.

What a joy to watch these students grow and transform, step by step, making new neuropathways and developing tools needed for their successful future. Let’s help them reach for the sky and find the set of strategies that will take them there.

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