How to Develop Executive Functioning Skills
While challenges with executive functioning skills are often associated with mental health diagnoses, they are also a natural part of human development.
Developing these skills takes time and practice, but it’s worth it. Here are some ideas to help kids and teens improve their executive function. Try brain games that build flexibility, organization, and planning while feeling like a game.
Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate brief thoughts or information in our brain. It’s how we manage to do simple addition or subtraction in our heads, but it also allows us to remember homework assignments long enough to write them down in a planner or on a calendar.
Digit recall activities are a great way to work on working memory. You can begin with 2 to 3 digit series and move up to longer sequences. Another technique is sequential ordering of images or objects like animals, sports balls, toys, and more. You can grade these activities up to a higher level by using different objects and increasing the size of the object or image.
Flexibility and perseverance are other essential executive functioning skills that can be taught through practice. You can work through scenarios with your kids that ask them to problem-solve through roadblocks like forgetting a pencil or having trouble focussing during a test.
For kids to successfully engage in EF tasks, they must be able to inhibit dominant responses. This can be challenging for children who struggle with ADHD. For example, if they are working on their homework and they start to check their phone or chat with friends, they have to have the cognitive flexibility to stop that behavior and return to their work.
To develop inhibitory control, it can be helpful to give students visual cues. For instance, an early childhood program for 4- to 5-year-olds uses an inhibitory control activity where they pair up children and have them share a picture book together. Each child then takes turns telling the story of the book to their partner.
Using a daily schedule can help kids learn to manage time and plan. Playing beat the clock games and keeping a family calendar are other strategies that promote planning skills. Also, engaging in age-appropriate activities such as cleaning or organizing provides an opportunity to work on a range of executive functioning skills including attention and working memory, organization, planning, and impulse control.
EF skills are important for academic success, but they’re also essential for everyday life. Being able to plan, organize, prioritize tasks, focus, manage thoughts and behaviors, and persevere through challenges are all skills we use on a daily basis.
To build these skills, students need structure in their lives, clear instructions and expectations, and lots of support from adults. This is especially important as they grow older and EF demands increase in school and beyond.
Parents can teach their kids executive functioning skills at any age by creating a supportive environment and helping them practice. For example, making a schedule or calendar can help children learn to plan. Asking questions like “how would you study for a test?” or “what can you do to stay focused when working on a task?” are great ways to get kids thinking about and practicing these skills. Worksheets provide a more structured approach to EF development by providing step-by-step instruction and prompts for goal-setting, time management, self-monitoring, and problem-solving.
A key executive functioning skill is planning, which helps people set goals and create a roadmap to reach them. A person with strong planning skills is able to prioritize tasks, ignore distractions, regulate emotions and persist when work becomes tiresome.
A person with strong flexible thinking can see a situation from more than one perspective, which is essential for problem-solving and taking risks. Flexible thinkers can also adapt to changing circumstances.
Teaching these skills is often a challenge for teachers. However, there are ways to make it easier. Some strategies may take time to become a habit, so it’s important to be consistent and persistent. Try using a calendar or checklist to stay organized. Organize your workspace to reduce distracting items and encourage self-care. Use visual aids like sticky notes and colored calendars to promote organizational and planning skills. Practice mindful meditation and stress management to improve inhibitory control and prevent impulsive responses. And don’t be afraid to ask for help!