How to Improve Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning skills are the cognitive abilities that help us follow directions, manage emotions, and stick to a plan. They are like the air traffic control system that helps planes land and take off at the same time at a busy airport.
Challenges with executive functioning can be a part of some mental health diagnoses, but can also occur in people without those conditions. Here are some ways to improve your executive functions.
1. Focus on one task at a time.
Like a muscle, executive functioning skills need to be exercised and strengthened over time. The best way to improve these important cognitive abilities is to focus on one task at a time and avoid distractions.
For example, when your child is building a block tower, they must plan out how to build it, prioritize and manage their materials, organize their workspace, attend to the task, regulate emotions and control impulsive behavior. They must also work with their peers and follow instructions.
To help children improve their planning and organizing skills, try giving them a checklist for tasks that need to be completed. Another strategy is to use mental puzzles that require fluid thinking, such as brainteasers or the new executive function interactive workbook. This helps kids to build their flexible thinking and self regulation skills in a fun way that feels more natural.
2. Prioritize tasks.
Organizing and prioritizing are essential executive functioning skills. These skills are important for planning, estimating how long something will take, and developing effective systems to organize materials, information, and belongings. They are also needed for initiation, the ability to start an activity.
Teach prioritization using a visual like the Eisenhower Matrix or with a chart that helps to identify tasks that are urgent and those that are important. Also try teaching these skills with a board game, such as chess, which requires strategic thinking, planning, and decision-making.
Another way to teach these skills is through literature that focuses on the topics of organization and perseverance. For example, try these picture books that discuss strategies for staying organized and meeting deadlines.
3. Keep track of time.
Time management is an executive function skill that helps us prioritize tasks, manage our emotions, and engage in goal-directed behavior. It also includes working memory, shift of attention, and inhibitory control (self-control).
It’s important to remember that we’re not born with executive functioning skills—they develop over time, typically until the early 20s. For those who struggle with executive functioning, the development of these skills can be slowed down.
Children can learn to improve their executive functions with the right tools and strategies. Try using visual schedules, calendars, and reminders to help kids stay organized and meet deadlines. You can also encourage organizational, planning, and self-control skills by asking children questions that require thought and effort to answer. For example, “What do you need to finish this project?”.
4. Keep a journal.
Whether you’re a student entering high school, a young professional transitioning into a new job, a parent juggling multiple roles, or an adult struggling with executive functioning challenges, there are many strategies you can use to improve these cognitive skills. Incorporating these simple strategies into your daily routine can help you achieve more success and decrease stress.
Teach executive functioning skills in the classroom during advisory period or a life skills class. You can also use literature to talk about these skills, from planning to perseverance. Activities like playing sports, organizing a room or a desk, and even engaging in social activities, can be an effective way to work on executive functioning skills. For example, if your child struggles with attention and flexibility, try using a sand timer or a visual calendar to help them manage their time more effectively.
5. Take breaks.
A break in any activity can help improve alertness, increase motivation, and reduce boredom or stress. It may also help with working memory and attention.
Kids with executive functioning challenges often have trouble starting long-term assignments or focusing on tasks that are repetitive or boring. They may also have difficulty with planning and following through on plans or regulating their emotions or behaviors.
Teaching these skills explicitly and providing lots of practice can be helpful for children with executive functioning difficulties. Kids can use apps that manage lists, utilize timers, generate reminders, and set goals to practice these strategies. They can also make checklists for big projects or daily routines. This is a great strategy to support them in addressing letter reversals or other handwriting concerns since the ability to shift and regulate attention is one of the main areas affected by executive functioning skills.