Developing Executive Functioning Skills in Children

executive functioning child

Developing Executive Functioning Skills in Children

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Does My Kid have Executive Functioning Deficits?

Have you ever wondered why your child always loses things, forgets his backpack, and gets super mad when you tell him it is time to stop what he is doing and come to dinner? Does your child have a tough time when things don’t go exactly the way they want? Does your child lose their homework frequently or forget to turn in completed assignments?

Child executive functioning comes from the part of the brain that works like the CEO of a company. There are certain skills needed to work in a manner that stays organized, focused, and self-regulated. Without these, the company (or child) may fall apart.

Executive functions will improve as the frontal lobe of the brain develops and the child develops the skills. It takes time for the executive functioning part of the brain to completely develop, many times not until age 25, and it take effort and practice for many. Many kids with ADHD have executive functioning deficits, which in turn, delays the development of these skills by almost 3 years. Having executive functioning issues has no relevance on how smart a person is (think absent-minded professor), but it does make it challenging throughout childhood years- for the children, their parents, AND their teachers.

Here are 11 types of executive functions, what they might look like, and how to strengthen them in your child.

1. Impulse Control

The child can stop and think before reacting. To some kids, this is tough to learn. This can affect success in school and at home. Parents can learn to ignore minor inappropriate behaviors while using age-appropriate consequences for other behaviors. Reward systems for home and school work well to encourage appropriate behavior. The child might need several reminders and reinforcements at first, then, gradually will need less cues. There are several games to play with kids that encourage impulse control, such as Simon Says, Mancala, Connect Four, Mastermind, and Operation.

2. Working Memory

A child with good working memory can hold multi-step directions in his mind or remember homework and project deadlines of multiple teachers with multiple competing deadlines. Often times, kids with executive functioning struggles in working memory forget their homework, forget to look in the planner, and don’t write it down to help that working memory. So… guess what? Their grades drop because they have missing assignments.

Parents can help increase these skills by helping their child create a short checklist with each subject and “fill in the blank” homework assignment lists to decrease the amount of writing needed in the planner. Many children with working memory deficits cannot write as fast as the teacher is presenting the tasks at hand.

Parents can help by asking the child to explain the assignment as it is written in the planner and have the child check it against the posted assignments if a digital calendar is used. Parents can also check the homework to make sure that it is completed and placed in an easily accessible location for the student to find it when it is time to turn it into the teacher. Writing down assignments can be a big help to those who struggle with this executive function.

3. Emotional Control

A child can display frustration tolerance or recover from disappointment in a short amount of time and have behavioral control. An older child might be able to manage his or her anxiety before taking a test or doing a presentation. It is often good to be aware of vulnerabilities, such as being too hungry or tired. Encourage your child to use healthy coping skills to calm down, such as deep breathing or counting to 10. Teach your child positive, encouraging self-statements, such as “I can do this”, or “I can work on this, even though it is hard”. Some games that encourage emotional control, frustration tolerance in particular, are Kerplunk, Mastermind, and Max.

4. Sustained Attention

A child can continue to work on a task despite distractions, feeling tired, or bored. When doing chores or homework, the parents can set timers that go off every 5-10 minutes. The timers act as a reminder to get back on task and refocus. Timers can also be an allotted time that your child has to complete the task. If the task is completed, then the child may be rewarded.

5. Task Initiation

The ability to begin a task within an appropriate amount of time without much procrastination. This is when you don’t have to ask your child over and over to do the dishes. This is when your teenager doesn’t wait until the night before the big test to start studying. You may try verbally prompting your child to do the task and remind her what the natural consequences are when she waits too long to start it. Parents can start the task with their child and then let the child continue on her own. Find out what the barriers are to starting the task. One game to encourage this is Snake Oil.

Planning/Prioritization

A child will be able to make steps on how to complete a task or decide what is most important. A child might be able to a fight with a friend or an older child might be able to set out a plan for getting a job. With this skill, practice makes it better. Practice walking through planning processes with them several times, asking them probing questions so they learn to do it on their own. Quiddler, Rat-a-Tat-Cat, and Animalogic are games that encourage this.

Organization

A child can keep track of or put away his toys. Giving your child good organizational schemes will help build this skill, such as different colored folders, or bins that are labeled. It is important to keep up with the organizational process so they learn to stay on top of it. Some good games to build this are Animalogic and Snake Oil.

Time Management

A child can complete a task within a reasonable amount of time. An older child might be able to meet deadlines in school. Time management is to know how long a task will take you and reserving that much time for it. It can be helpful to implement timers to show how long things take, and so your child can get practice at recognizing how long a period of time is.

Goal-Directed Persistence

This is the ability to follow through with tasks to complete a goal. A young child might complete chores so he can go outside and play, while an older child might save money to buy a car. You can help a child build this skills by laying out goals with them and keeping them accountable.

Flexibility

This is the ability to revise plans when things don’t go as they were initially set out to go. “Going with the flow” can be difficult for some kids and even some adults. Teaching your child to be flexible can be difficult. Helping them look at different perspectives through exploring artwork, logic games, or practicing gratitude. Some other games are Jenga, Distraction, MIndtrap, Quiddler, and Connect Four. One book I like to teach flexible thinking is My Day Is Ruined by Julia Cook

Self-Evaluation

This is the ability to take a step back and observe your reactions. A young child might be able to change his behavior after getting feedback from an adult and observing his own mistakes on homework. Having self-awareness and the ability to evaluate yourself or take criticism from others in a non-defensive way can be a difficult skills to master. Help your child find her strengths and combat negative comparisons against others. Provide a safe environment for open discussions about difficulties they may be having.

Child executive functioning skills take time to master, but remember they are developing a little bit every day. With some of these strategies you can implement at home and some of the games that can be played will help the process of building these skills. Have compassion and empathy for your child and remember that he or she is still developing.

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