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  • Lisa Black

What is executive functioning?

Executive functions are cognitive abilities that help us to organise and manage our thoughts, actions and emotions to initiate, sustain and complete a task. Basically, the executive functions serve as the ‘management’ system in our brain. It helps us to focus, attend, prioritise, organise, and remember details.

Our executive functioning skills help us to do a range of activities such as making plans, completing our work on time, remembering more than one thing at once, evaluating ideas, coping with changes, remembering multiple instructions to complete tasks and managing behaviours.

Signs that your child may have challenges with executive functioning;

  • Difficulty changing from one activity to another or anxiety around change

  • Difficulty recalling all information

  • Difficulty planning or prioritising tasks

  • Difficulty knowing how to start and complete a task

  • Difficulty sequencing a task into a logical order

  • Difficulty remembering the correct equipment from home or school

  • Difficulty completing homework or home tasks on time

  • Frequently switching between activities

  • Easily distracted in class or at home

  • Gives up on tasks easily

  • Difficulty with managing impulsive behaviour, anxiety or emotional regulation

Let’s have a look at each of these executive functioning skills:

  • Impulse control: This is a child’s ability to stop and think before they act. The child may do things without thinking, move through tasks to a preferred task without considering their priorities or speed through their work.

  • Emotional control: This is a child’s ability to manage their feelings. The child may have difficulty managing their emotions appropriately to a task in front of them and have larger or smaller reactions than required for the situation.

  • Planning/ prioritisation: This is the ability to plan steps to reach a goal on time. Children with planning difficulties often do not know how to break down larger tasks into smaller, ordered parts. They require frequent prompting to complete activities and find it challenging to think through steps to reach a goal.

  • Flexibility: This is our ability to change when plans or conditions change. Children with difficulty in flexibility often are upset if plans change or if a task becomes more complex. They may get frustrated quickly if their plans are not successful the first time. They require a lot of support to see other options to complete tasks when unsuccessful.

  • Working memory: This is the ability to hold information in the brain and use it to complete a task. Children with working memory challenges often forget information required for them to complete a task. They may forget to complete activities in their daily routine, remember directions or follow through with tasks. Information given to these children doesn’t ‘stick’ in their brain.

  • Self monitoring: This is the ability to monitor and evaluate your own performance. These children tend not to notice that they’re not following directions, misjudge their efforts or have trouble adjusting to feedback.

  • Task initiation: This is the ability to recognise when it is time to get started in a task and start without procrastination. These children tend to require frequent prompts to complete activities, leave things to the last minute or procrastinate. They often do not know how to initiate a task and have trouble with planning and organisation.

  • Organisation: This is our ability to keep track of our information and materials. Children with lower organisational skills often lose their belongings or fail to stay on task at school or have difficulty keeping track of things they need to do.

Executive functioning skills can be improved for children and often need to be explicitly taught as these skills do not come naturally for many children with additional needs.

Some simple ways you can support executive functioning skills at home include;

  • Provide instructions in a clear and predictable order

  • Provide written or visual schedules of daily tasks

  • Set reminders on child’s devices to complete routines

  • Use schedule-based apps to organise child, such as choiceworks

  • Provide written/ visual/ video instructions for any additional tasks that the child may complete

  • Teach your child how to write and check a to-do list

  • Use visual reminder prompts, such as remindable tags on a child’s bag to support them to check what to pack for their day

  • Support your child to use timers. Timers may be used to keep on task (eg- 10 minutes of work) or to manage their breaks between work (eg- 10 minutes iPad break).

  • Set up screen limits in the devices. Devices offer screen limits for the day and you can choose how long your child is using each app for. This may be useful when the child has more homework than normal, such as around exam time, or to stop too much procrastination of tasks.

  • Minimise distractions in the child’s workspace. If the child is expected to complete work in their bedroom but all of their favourite toys/ games are in sight, they are more likely to get distracted from their homework and find it challenging to initiate and remain focused on their tasks.

  • Set regular goals with the children

  • Get the child’s attention before providing them with information by saying their name or saying ‘this is important to know….’

Please talk to your Occupational Therapist if you require further support with your child for their executive functioning skills.


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