Developing Executive Functioning Skills for Children and Teens: A Path to Success

Executive Functioning Skills For Kids and Teens

Kids and teens use executive functioning skills every day—think of focusing on instruction, keeping materials organized, starting work right away and working through challenges. While most children develop these skills easily, many struggling learners need to learn them explicitly.

Fortunately, EF skills can be taught and improved. Teachers can include EF instruction in advisory periods, morning meetings, academic tutoring support time and even health or life skills class.

1. Attention

Attention is a cognitive process that helps us focus, control impulses and reach our goals. It’s the key to success in school, extracurricular activities and in life.

Sometimes we’re caught off guard and our attention is captured (i.e., directed involuntarily) by qualities of stimuli in the environment. This type of processing is called bottom-up attention or exogenous attention.

James plays down attention’s role in perceptual phenomena but does assign it an important explanatory role in the production of behaviour.

2. Organization

Organization is an executive functioning skill that helps kids and adults keep track of their materials, assignments and deadlines. It might involve things like keeping a clean workspace, backpack or locker and bringing required materials to school.

Kids who forget homework assignments, can’t find pages in their binders or have messy workspaces might need more practice with these skills. These are classic signs of organizational challenges.

3. Planning

Planning is the ability to identify future tasks and set goals for completing them. It also involves being able to organize materials, regulate emotions and schedule activities.

Planning skills are important for children’s academic success. They can also help kids and young adults manage behaviors and achieve their goals outside of school. Coordinate with your child’s existing care team to target these skills.

4. Decision-Making

Every day, we make a multitude of choices that may seem small but have larger-scale effects. Mastering the process of making effective judgments is essential for success.

Tactical decisions support the policies and plans established by higher-level management. Examples of these include scheduling production and resolving customer service issues.

Group decision-making involves a collaborative process that includes the evaluation of multiple perspectives. This type of decision-making can help reduce risk and ensure that unforeseen consequences are considered.

5. Time Management

Time management is the ability to estimate how long tasks will take and manage time wisely. This includes prioritizing, dividing work into chunks, pacing, and working to meet deadlines.

Kids can learn and practice these skills by making checklists for everyday chores and homework assignments. They can also use this boom card deck to practice planning and scheduling activities. It helps them organize their day and plan ahead for school and extracurricular activities.

6. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is what helps us control impulsive behaviors, think before acting, and manage our emotions. It also allows us to follow multiple-step instructions, prioritize tasks and remain focused despite distractions.

While not everyone is born with stronger executive functioning skills, nearly all of us can learn to improve them. This is similar to building a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.

7. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to monitor your own emotions and reactions. It’s how you recognize your strengths, weaknesses, triggers and motivators.

Students often use this Thinking Skill in social contexts, like when monitoring their own comprhension while reading or assessing how they speak during group discussions.

This skill can also help students evaluate how their current lives and passions fit with their current environment, emotions and goals.

8. Perseverance

A necessary executive functioning skill, perseverance is the ability to work through challenges all the way to achieving your goal. Use this resource to teach kids the importance of working through difficult activities with perseverance.

Like air traffic controllers at the airport, your children need strong executive function skills to plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multiple-step directions, and stay focused despite distractions.

9. Motivation

Motivation is a feeling of wanting to do something and the acknowledgement that it would be good to do it. It is also the ability to break a big task into small, doable steps.

Research has shown that motivation interacts with executive functions to meet current behavioral demands and opportunities. This is especially true for reward-related motivation. Motives have been classified as “push” versus “pull.” Push motives relate to internal changes such as hunger, thirst and sleepiness. Pull motives relate to external goals such as food, sex, aggression and fear.

10. Social Emotional Learning

The development of social emotional learning is important for students as it helps them to understand and appreciate people from different backgrounds. They will also learn how to cope with difficult situations.

Social–emotional learning is a key component to the push for inclusive education and equitable classrooms. Explore resources that support teachers to implement SEL approaches in their classrooms in a culturally responsive way.

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