child with tight brown curls leaning against the wall smiling
child with tight brown curls leaning against the wall smiling

Teaching executive functioning skills

Executive function refers to a group of skills performed by the brain, which include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.

Need to know

Executive function refers to a group of skills performed by the brain, which include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. These skills are important in navigating daily life, they help us be effective learners and to perform well at school and work. Executive dysfunction can have a significant impact on the ability to focus, follow directions, and regulate emotions, among other things.

Why it’s important

As a child grows so do the expectations of the adults around them. Parents expect their kids to progressively contribute to home life and teachers expect an increase in independent learning throughout different school stages. As these expectations grow, the executive functions skills required to meet them also increase in complexity. By the time teenagers are in high school they are required to use all of the following executive functions:

  • Inhibition: controlling impulses by stopping one’s own behaviour at the right time
  • Cognitive flexibility: transitioning from one activity to another and solving problems flexibly
  • Emotional control: regulating emotional responses appropriately 
  • Initiation: starting a task or activity and generating ideas independently 
  • Working memory: holding the necessary information in mind to complete a task
  • Planning & organisation: anticipating future events and developing a plan ahead of time
  • Organisation of materials: keeping work space, personal areas, and materials in an orderly manner
  • Monitoring: checking work for errors and being aware of how one’s own behaviour affects others

Children who have learning differences, an ADHD or Autism diagnosis are more likely to struggle with executive functioning than their peers. For your child, executive dysfunction may look like this:

  • regularly loses belongings
  • forgets school notes or homework
  • struggles to follow directions
  • difficulty getting started on tasks
  • getting distracted while doing a task
  • difficulty moving from one task to another
  • problems keeping track of time
  • often loses control of emotions
  • gets “stuck” or fixated on an idea

These signs can often be misunderstood as defiance, laziness or a general careless attitude. Supportive teachers and parents who provide the right scaffolding can create the right environment for kids to learn and develop the skills they need to succeed at school and in life.

Tips & strategies

With regular practice and support, executive skills can be learnt and developed over time. These strategies can be used at home and in the classroom.

Declarative language – declarative language is simply saying out loud what you know or think in the form of a comment, rather than directing it at a person. This is really helpful for children who struggle with executive dysfunction; you provide the sign posts, and the child will follow using their critical thinking skills. 

Encourage independent thinking by making statements that aid with planning a task. For example:

  • I wonder what you need to get started
  • I imagine deciding what to do first is important
  • Sometimes looking at examples really helps
  • I notice we have paper but we are out of glue
  • I think this is a very big task to complete in one day

Routines – a routine is a group of sequenced tasks that happen at regular intervals. The key ingredients to making a routine work include:

  • Breaking down tasks – it is much easier to complete small individual tasks than taking on a large activity with multiple goals
  • Getting buy-in – Involve your child in deciding what gets done and when. Giving options and providing autonomy can go a long way in getting buy-in
  • Make it regular – weekly and daily routines create predictability and structure not only for your child but for everyone else around them

Tools for success – If your kid struggles with executive dysfunction, you will need to give them the tools that will set them up for success.

  • Planning visuals – print out and display things like timetables and schedule for routines
  • Step-by-step instructions with pictures – visual with steps and pictures can support working memory and keep kids on track
  • Labelled containers, folders and other items – it is easier to be organised when everything has a place where it should be stored
  • Reminders, notifications, clocks and timers – address time blindness by using whatever you have in the home to call attention to the passing of time

Traditional martial arts – Tae Kwon Do emphasises not only physical conditioning but also character development and self-control. As students progress through each belt grading, they are continuously challenged, strengthening core executive functions.

References 

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