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How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned” – Benjamin Franklin, activist, author, humorist, and scientist

Executive functioning skills facilitate the behaviors required to plan and achieve goals. The fundamental skills related to executive function include proficiency in adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization. These competencies are essential to a child’s growth and learning ability, and though development begins in early childhood, these skills continue to progress well into adulthood. Struggling with many executive functions may be a symptom of a learning difference, such as ADHD or dyslexia . By early adolescence, your child should begin exhibiting most of these executive functioning skills below.

Adaptable Thinking

Adaptable thinking gives a child the ability to problem solve or adjust to situations when necessary and overcome instantaneous obstacles. This skill also applies to a child’s ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. A child who exhibits this type of cognitive thinking isn’t stumped by everyday hurdles or a difference in opinion. An example of adaptable thinking is a child who encounters a roadblock on their walk to school and devises an alternate route.

Planning

A child’s ability to think about the future, create a plan of action, and prioritize the different working parts is a strong sign of cognitive development. Planning skills allow a child to make a list of operations designed to effectively accomplish a task and to adequately determine which aspects are the most important. Some examples of planning are making a packing list, giving directions, or writing a recipe.

Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring involves a child’s ability to self-evaluate or comprehend how well he or she is performing a specific task. Self-monitoring helps children track and reflect on their progress regarding a specific assignment and understand that adjustments may need to be made to accomplish the task at hand. An example of positive self-monitoring is when a child identifies that a mathematics formula isn’t producing the desired results, and checks their work to discover the error.

Self-Control

Self-control addresses a child’s ability to restrain from physical or emotional outbursts. Impulse control keeps a child from reacting or acting without thinking, while emotional control helps a child to remain calm and resist the urge to overreact or shutdown due to criticism or obstacles. An example of effective self-control in terms of executive function is when a child receives a disappointing score on a test, but maintains focus and absorbs the constructive criticism while staying level-headed and learning from the mistakes.

Working Memory

Working memory involves a child’s ability to retain and store learned information and then later put it to use. This skill is crucial to a child’s success in the classroom , as it is responsible for short-term memory and execution. A strong working memory is exhibited by a child who successfully remembers and executes the instructions for a step-by-step drill in gym class.

Time Management

Time management concerns a child’s ability to properly organize a schedule, complete tasks on time, and maintain patience throughout assignments. Time management is imperative for a child in an array of scenarios as it facilitates the ability to jump from task to task and enhances productivity, punctuality, and goal setting skills. An example of good time management is the completion of a multi-step project before the deadline without rushing or compromising on quality.

Organization

Organization skills addresses a child’s ability to efficiently arrange materials or thoughts in an orderly fashion. Organization is vital to a child’s growth and development as it allows them to tell a succinct story or keep track of possessions. Efficient organization is displayed when a child designates a distinct folder or notebook to each school subject or consistently maintains any sort of systematic method.

How Hill Learning Center Can Help

We can make a difference. Hill Learning Center is dedicated to transforming students with learning differences and challenges into confident, independent learners. Contact us if you’re interested in taking the next step. Interested in learning more about executive function? Read our Executive Function E-Book.

Step 1: Executive Function 101

  • Executive Function & Self-Regulation
  • Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

Step 2: The Science of Executive Function

  • Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System
  • Video: How to Build Core Capabilities for Life

Step 3: Building Executive Function Skills

  • You Are Here: Activities Guides: Practicing Executive Function Skills
  • Building the Core Skills Youth Need for Life
  • Building the Skills Adults Need for Life

Executive function and self-regulation (EF/SR) skills provide critical supports for learning and development, and while we aren’t born with these skills, we are born with the potential to develop them through interactions and practice.

This 16-page guide (available for download, below), describes a variety of activities and games that represent age-appropriate ways for adults to support and strengthen various components of EF/SR in children.

Each chapter of this guide contains activities suitable for a different age group, from infants to teenagers. The guide may be read in its entirety (which includes the introduction and references) or in discrete sections geared to specific age groups.

Suggested citation: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

An activities guide for building executive function

This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for details.

You might not have heard of executive functioning activities before, but you just might be glad to learn about them. After all, there are few things as frustrating in the life of a parent as watching your child struggle. And there are children in virtually every household in America struggling with executive dysfunction.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

For those who don’t know, executive dysfunction is a neurological symptom common for millions of people with a range of disorders, conditions, and diseases. Those diagnosed with anything from autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, depression, learning disabilities, and even Alzheimer’s can have impaired executive functioning abilities. If you aren’t sure if your child struggles with executive functioning, compare them with our executive functioning checklist .

To make matters more complicated, executive dysfunction can be further broken down into a number of categories. Experts don’t always agree on how many! For the purposes of this article, I’ll discuss six of the most frequently discussed areas of challenge: Organization, Time Management, Planning & Problem Solving, Attention, Working Memory, and Inhibition. All of these are places that parents of children with executive dysfunction wish they could help their child improve.

Luckily, problems with executive function aren’t a death sentence, or destined to stay problems forever. With coaching, practice, and positive reinforcement, children who struggle with executive dysfunction can improve – sometimes by leaps and bounds. Executive functioning activities are the way you do that. Some activities are daily habits or practices. Others are conversation starters, and some are fun games your child won’t even realize are designed to help them improve!

How to use the Masterlist

I’ve created this reference to be broadly applicable to children anywhere from k-12 struggling with their executive functioning. (You’ll see I pay much more attention to executive functioning activities for younger children, however.) I didn’t break the list up into age categories though, since children develop at varied rates. You as the parent will be able to sense whether your child might benefit more from playing hopscotch or chess.

To get started, let’s chat about the few general principles you should follow when trying to improve any aspect of your child’s executive function:

Practice often

The more frequently someone is exposed to new skills or material, the faster they’ll start to integrate those into their repertoire. However, if you wait too long between rounds, and children might have lost progress they made, or have forgotten how to do it. Which may require a complete re-teach. A few times a week is the sweet spot for most children for these masterlist activities, but mileage may vary.

Steadily increase the level of challenge

When trying to build up someone’s working memory, for example, having them play 20 questions every day for a month is more likely to frustrate, annoy, or outright enrage them instead of helping. When you notice your child starting to master one activity, switch it up and offer something slightly more advanced. This is especially true for children with ADHD, since their brains can get bored very quickly without novel stimulation.

Weave in physical activity if possible

Types of physical activity that include character-building or mindfulness focuses, for example traditional martial arts or yoga, have the most evidence-based success in improving executive functioning. However, there’s plenty of other studies backing up the benefits of exercise and movement in general for executive dysfunction. Something is better than nothing!

As a final point, I’d also encourage you to brush up on any executive functioning skills you find yourself lacking in. It is usually much easier for our children to look to us for examples of how to live. Their functioning is even more likely to improve if your skills are in decent shape. You can even play these games or do joint activities with your child. Explain that you want both of you to improve your skills. Humility and honesty can go a long way with most children, and it just might improve their willingness to play along if they know you struggle like they do.

So without further ado, here is the Executive Functioning Activity Masterlist!

Organization Executive Functioning Activities

Time Management Executive Functioning Activities

  • Writing weekly, monthly, even yearly plans can help children visualize abstract concepts like time
  • Use things that ding! This includes timers, phone apps, watch alarms, clocks, etc
  • Tell stories- either printed or made up by you- over and over that emphasize a sequence. For example: first wake up, then brush teeth, then eat breakfast, etc
  • Posted schedules, especially those with eye-catching visuals or colors [We have a bundle of editable routine and schedule posters in the new shop, as an example]
  • Daily whiteboards: have children write the month, day, day of the week, and year. Include upcoming events and those from the recent past. Older children can add daily activities.
  • Time estimation games: how long will it take to drive to Grandma’s? How much time passes between tagging the front door then sprinting to the stop sign?
  • Learning a musical instrument

Planning & Problem Solving Executive Functioning Activities

Attention Executive Functioning Activities

  • Yoga
  • Martial Arts
  • Dance
  • Concentration card game
  • Red light, green light
  • Jump rope games & complicated variants (double dutch, chinese jump rope)
  • Hide & Seek, plus dim lighting versions like Flashlight Tag or Manhunt
  • Laser Tag, paintball, & hunting for older children
  • Learning a musical instrument
  • Reading books like I Spy
  • Rubik’s Cubes
  • Games that require you to follow one or many objects like “Who’s got the button” or “Lucky Ducky“

Working Memory Executive Functioning Activities

  • Matching card games like Go Fish
  • Singing rounds, or in vocal parts
  • 20 Questions, I Spy, or other guessing games
  • Any strategy-based board game like checkers, Battleship, chess, Settlers of Catan, or Ticket to Ride)
  • Cogmed is a computer-based strategy clinically shown to improve working memory
  • Hand-clapping games like Miss Mary Mack, A sailor went to sea, Double double, etc

Inhibition Executive Functioning Activities

So if you couldn’t tell, we are all SO excited about the new shop here at the Homeschool Resource Room. Go check it out if you find yourself in need of planners, graphic organizers, and editable schedules for the child in your life with executive dysfunction! [Or, you know, any child who might benefit from one of those!] Shop Now!

Empower children. Train the brain.

Posted May 2, 2014

I’ve often marveled at how some adults who had the most horrific childhoods are so resilient and successful while others continue to suffer as adults. Likewise, affluent and relatively uneventful childhoods do not reliably predict later happiness in life. Research repeatedly demonstrates that while some outcomes are largely due to our genetic blueprint, how we shape that blueprint is the key to thriving.

As a parent, I have always been preoccupied with figuring out how to help my children process new experiences in a healthy way. Would the tragic death of a teacher who was hit by a car in front of her students scar my daughter? Would being late to learn how to read erode my son’s confidence? And would something as frustratingly commonplace as losing my patience with my children impact their development? As a trial lawyer accustomed to relying on evidence and expert opinions, I wanted neuroscience to help guide and improve my parenting.

Research shows that one of the best predictors of success in school and in life is not IQ scores (no surprise), but capable executive function. Executive function is essentially the Chief Executive Officer role of the brain, i.e., the job of integrating key systems of the brain to execute high-level cognitive tasks, including planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. According to a study by Harvard’s Ceter on the Developing Child, executive function skills help us “focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions.”

For children, emerging executive function skills are the building blocks for learning to read and write, remembering the steps for performing arithmetic, participating in class discussions and group projects, and interacting socially. In short, executive function, depending on its strength or weakness, will assist or impede the development of both cognitive and social capacities.

While there has been much attention focused on strengthening executive functioning in children with Autism and ADHD, there is little focus on boosting executive functioning in all children through practice. And from a parenting perspective, there is almost no discussion of ways to help your children build these skills during the stages when the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is developing and maturing, from as early as the age of three through adolescence. Yet researchers at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child have long concluded that providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, through practice as applied and honed with experiences, “is one of society’s most important responsibilities.”

In this blog, I will explore the ways that researchers, experts, and parents strengthen children’s executive function skills as they encounter universal life experiences. My philosophy is this: Teach children to L.E.A.D., and they will thrive. That is, regularly help children as part of their daily routines to integrate:

Logic,

Emotions,

Analysis, and

Decision-making.

How does this work in practice? By empowering children to develop their own plans as they encounter new experiences—for everything from celebrations (e.g., creating a plan to make a holiday meaningful) to the most difficult of life’s challenges (e.g., creating a plan to mourn)—children integrate the key systems of the brain and boost executive functioning. Their ability to do this at a young age is astounding.

Mounting empirical evidence demonstrates the enormous value of encouraging children to develop their own plans. A large-scale study was conducted of the research-based early childhood program Tools of the Mind, a key part of which involved pre-school and kindergarten children creating, with the aid of a teacher, individual “play plans.” In their plans, children as young as three draw pictures of themselves in their chosen role, practice writing out their plans, and then attempt to execute (and as necessary, adjust) their plans. The results are overwhelming: Only half the kindergartners in the non-Tools group scored “proficient” at their grade-level, while 97% of their peers in the Tools group scored “proficient.” Additional testing of the program demonstrated among the Tools groups increased IQ scores and significant improvement in behavior ratings. Award-winning journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman conclude in Nurture Shock that through a plan-based curriculum “the child’s brain learns how one symbol combines with multiple other symbols, akin to high-order abstract thinking.”

From yet another perspective, Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the 10,000-hours rule for exceptional performance. As it turns out, this rule finds support in brain science. While early theories of the brain depicted it as unchangeable, we now know that due to the brain’s plasticity it can strengthen and increase connections with practice, especially for youth. Consequently, if we want children to strengthen their executive functioning to achieve social and academic success, then they need to practice executive function skills, i.e., developing and executing plans.

Just this December at the 2013 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Dr. Martin Seligman, the leader of the positive psychology field, referred to our species as “Homo Prospectus” (“the one who plans”), instead of “Homo Sapien” (“the one who knows”), emphasizing the profound importance of the skill of planning. Seligman asked the question: “Can we become better ‘prospectors’ and then become happier?”

Our blueprint for parenting should include plan-based tools for children to help them LEAD their futures in healthy and meaningful directions. We can’t control all of the good and bad things that will happen to our children, but we can give them the tools they need to make their experiences, whether joyous or painful, opportunities for growth. Stay tuned, as I explore the many ways we can empower children to boost their executive function skills through plan-based practice.

What is executive function? The cognitive skills that help us plan, prioritize, and execute complex tasks are commonly tied to ADHD in children and adults. Here, ADHD authority Russell Barkley, Ph.D. explains how executive dysfunction originates in the ADHD brain and what these deficits typically look like.

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How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function is the cognitive process that organizes thoughts and activities, prioritizes tasks, manages time efficiently, and makes decisions. Executive function skills are the skills that help us establish structures and strategies for managing projects and determine the actions required to move each project forward. Individuals with executive dysfunction often struggle to analyze, plan, organize, schedule, and complete tasks at all — or on deadline. They misplace materials, prioritize the wrong things, and get overwhelmed by big projects.

Is Executive Dysfunction a Symptom of ADHD?

There’s a lot of confusion around “executive function” — and how it relates to ADHD. Is ADHD an executive function disorder? Is every executive function disorder also ADHD? The answers hinge on what we mean by “executive functions” — and how they relate to self-regulation.

The term “executive functioning” was coined in the 1970s by Karl Pribram, whose research indicated that the executive functions are mediated primarily by the prefrontal cortex. Traditionally, it’s been used extensively in neuropsychology, clinical psychology, and psychiatry. In recent years, however, it’s spread into the broader field of general psychology and into education, where it’s often incorporated into teaching strategies and classroom accommodations.

So far, we know about four circuits in prefrontal cortex of the brain that relate to executive function — and executive dysfunction.

Executive Function and the ADHD Brain

The “What” Circuit: Goes from the frontal lobe — especially the outer surface — back into an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, particularly a structure called the striatum. The “What” Circuit is linked to working memory, so it’s in this circuit that what we think starts to guide what we do. This is particularly true when it comes to plans, goals, and the future.

The “When” Circuit: This second circuit goes from the same prefrontal area back into a very ancient part of the brain called the cerebellum, at the very backmost part of your head. The “When” Circuit is the timing circuit of the brain — it coordinates not just how smooth behavior will be and the sequence of behavior, but also the timeliness of your actions and when you do certain things. An improperly functioning “When” Circuit in a person with ADHD explains why we often have problems with time management.

The “Why” Circuit: The third circuit also originates from the frontal lobe, going through the central part of the brain (known as the anterior cingulate) to the amygdala — the gateway to the limbic system. It’s often referred to as the “hot” circuit because it’s linked to our emotions — it’s where what we think controls how we feel, and vice versa. It’s the final decision maker in all our plans. When thinking about multiple things we could be doing, this is the circuit that eventually chooses among the options based on how we feel about them and their emotional and motivational properties.

The “Who” Circuit: This final circuit goes from the frontal lobe to the very back of the hemisphere. It’s where self-awareness takes place — it’s where we’re aware of what we do, how we feel (both internally and externally), and what’s happening to us.

By viewing ADHD in relation to these four circuits, you can understand where symptoms originate. Depending upon which circuits are most impaired and least impaired, you can see variation in the kinds of symptoms that any individual is going to have. Some people have more working memory deficit. Some people have more emotion regulation problems. Some people have more difficulties with timing, but less difficulties with all the others. But they all involve these circuits.

What Are the Core Executive Function Skills?

So we know what parts of the brain control executive functions, but what are they specifically? Broadly speaking, executive function refers to the cognitive or mental abilities that people need to actively pursue goals. In other words, it’s about how we behave toward our future goals and what mental abilities we need to accomplish them.

The term is very closely related to self-regulation — executive functions are things you do to yourself, in order to change your behavior. By employing your executive functions effectively, you’re hoping to change your future for the better.

Executive function is judged by the strength of these seven skills:

1. Self-awareness: Simply put, this is self-directed attention.

2. Inhibition: Also known as self-restraint.

3. Non-Verbal Working Memory: The ability to hold things in your mind. Essentially, visual imagery — how well you can picture things mentally.

4. Verbal Working Memory: Self-speech, or internal speech. Most people think of this as their “inner monologue.”

5. Emotional Self-Regulation: The ability to take the previous four executive functions and use them to manipulate your own emotional state. This means learning to use words, images, and your own self-awareness to process and alter how we feel about things.

6. Self-motivation: How well you can motivate yourself to complete a task when there is no immediate external consequence.

7. Planning and Problem Solving: Experts sometimes like to think of this as “self-play” — how we play with information in our minds to come up with new ways of doing something. By taking things apart and recombining them in different ways, we’re planning solutions to our problems.

Does this list sound familiar? It should. Anyone who exhibits the classic symptoms of ADHD will have difficulty with all or most of these seven executive functions. Problems with inhibition in someone with ADHD lead to impulsive actions, for example. Problems with emotional regulation lead to inappropriate outbursts.

Essentially, ADHD is an executive function deficit disorder (EFDD). The umbrella term “ADHD” is simply another way of referring to these issues.

These seven executive functions develop over time, in generally chronological order. Self-awareness starts to develop around age 2, and by age 30, planning and problem solving should be fully developed in a neurotypical person. Those with ADHD are generally about 30 to 40 percent behind their peers in transitioning from one executive function to the next. Therefore, it makes sense for children and adults with ADHD to have trouble dealing with age-appropriate situations — they’re thinking and acting in ways that are like much younger people.

Awareness of these executive functions can help parents set up an early detection system for ADHD, helping them to seek a professional evaluation and accommodations before a child begins to struggle in school. Then, with proper accommodations and treatment, people with ADHD can learn to use what they know and strengthen these executive functions over time.

by Kim Peeples, Head of School at Groves Academy

Groves Academy’s Head of School, Kim Peeples, is being featured by multiple Twin Cities media outlets this week to share insights on how parents can help develop executive function skills at home.

Students with learning disabilities often struggle with executive functioning — which are the skills we use to manage our time, prioritize our activities, regulate our emotions, and persist in achieving a goal or completing a task.

Think of executive function as a conductor for an orchestra: An orchestra is made up of a variety of talented musicians and with the guidance of the conductor, they bring sounds of multiple instruments together to create beautiful music.

Parents, here’s what you can do to help develop your child’s executive functioning skills at home:

  • Involve your student in creating a goal they can accomplish by the end of the week, like creating a special family dinner
    • Together, create the tasks that need to be completed
    • Prioritize the order of completion for those tasks
    • Create a schedule for when the tasks need to be done

At the end of the week, perhaps during the special family dinner, be sure to talk about the experience. What worked well? What was challenging? What could have been done differently?

I invite you to learn more about Groves and our additional resources!

Step 1: Executive Function 101

  • You Are Here: Executive Function & Self-Regulation
  • Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

Step 2: The Science of Executive Function

  • Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System
  • Video: How to Build Core Capabilities for Life

Step 3: Building Executive Function Skills

  • Activities Guides: Practicing Executive Function Skills
  • Building the Core Skills Youth Need for Life
  • Building the Skills Adults Need for Life

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families.

Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skillsEach type of executive function skill draws on elements of the others.

  • Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. Some children may need more support than others to develop these skills. In other situations, if children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions in their environments—or (worse) if those influences are sources of toxic stress—their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired. Adverse environments resulting from neglect, abuse, and/or violence may expose children to toxic stress, which can disrupt brain architecture and impair the development of executive function.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills By focusing on real-life daily situations such as bedtime and mealtime, the Ready4Routines intervention seeks to strengthen executive function skills in adults and children, while also increasing predictability within young children’s lives.

Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities. Growth-promoting environments provide children with “scaffolding” that helps them practice necessary skills before they must perform them alone. Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skillsHow to Help Children Improve Executive Functioning

Executive functions are a popular “buzz word” right now and with good reason. In a nutshell, executive functions include the following skills: inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem-solving and planning. These super-important skills can be improved with training which is good news since they are necessary for at school, home and work. Executive function training includes activities such as computer-based training, working memory activities, traditional tae-kwon-do, aerobics, mindfulness, and yoga.

Here are several suggestions on how to help children improve executive functioning.

Act Early – children who need to improve executive functioning improve the most with executive functioning training.

Try activities that address a variety of executive functioning skills – If you work on working memory skills, the child’s working memory skills may improve but it will most likely not affect inhibitory control. Training while switching from one task to another helps to improve executive function skills across more domains.

Keep Challenging Children – Increase the difficulty of executive function tasks as children improve.

Practice all day, every day – Practice executive function skills throughout the school day and at home to ensure repetitive practice and learning in different environments.

Push children to try harder – Research indicates that the greatest gains in executive function skills are following the most demanding executive function skills and tasks.

Offer activities where children are self-motivated to improve – Children work much harder if they are invested in improving the skill. Pick tasks that children are motivated to participate in and improve their skills. Here are 5 suggestions to encourage self- motivation in children:

  1. Independent thinking: Allow the child to work on a certain skill and report back to you how they have improved that skill. They can improve or change it any way that they think will help.
  2. Provide choices: Children can be more intrinsically motivated if they have a say in how they are accomplishing a goal. Try not to make any activity a requirement.
  3. Teach self-direction: Everyone feels a larger sense of accomplishment when you are able to do something all by yourself.
  4. Power of positive thinking: Having an “I can” attitude can help tremendously and build up a student’s confidence. Check out Positive Affirmations Posters and Cards.
  5. Ask questions: Encourage students to think for themselves rather than provide answers for them. For example – what suggestions do you have to increase your self-control?

Reference: Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current directions in psychological science, 21(5), 335-341.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

Self- Regulation Skills Taught: This curriculum provides an effective, time-efficient structured system to provide classroom breaks, improve self-awareness and self advocacy and teach specific self-regulation skills so that kids have tools to use in their classrooms. This system will get kids moving, give them the benefits of a brain power boost [from getting their heart rate up], give them heavy work and isometrics to help them calm down, and help them learn techniques to quiet and control their bodies in order to return to their academic work. FIND OUT MORE.

This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for details.

You might not have heard of executive functioning activities before, but you just might be glad to learn about them. After all, there are few things as frustrating in the life of a parent as watching your child struggle. And there are children in virtually every household in America struggling with executive dysfunction.

How to help your child to develop the 7 executive functioning skills

For those who don’t know, executive dysfunction is a neurological symptom common for millions of people with a range of disorders, conditions, and diseases. Those diagnosed with anything from autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, depression, learning disabilities, and even Alzheimer’s can have impaired executive functioning abilities. If you aren’t sure if your child struggles with executive functioning, compare them with our executive functioning checklist .

To make matters more complicated, executive dysfunction can be further broken down into a number of categories. Experts don’t always agree on how many! For the purposes of this article, I’ll discuss six of the most frequently discussed areas of challenge: Organization, Time Management, Planning & Problem Solving, Attention, Working Memory, and Inhibition. All of these are places that parents of children with executive dysfunction wish they could help their child improve.

Luckily, problems with executive function aren’t a death sentence, or destined to stay problems forever. With coaching, practice, and positive reinforcement, children who struggle with executive dysfunction can improve – sometimes by leaps and bounds. Executive functioning activities are the way you do that. Some activities are daily habits or practices. Others are conversation starters, and some are fun games your child won’t even realize are designed to help them improve!

How to use the Masterlist

I’ve created this reference to be broadly applicable to children anywhere from k-12 struggling with their executive functioning. (You’ll see I pay much more attention to executive functioning activities for younger children, however.) I didn’t break the list up into age categories though, since children develop at varied rates. You as the parent will be able to sense whether your child might benefit more from playing hopscotch or chess.

To get started, let’s chat about the few general principles you should follow when trying to improve any aspect of your child’s executive function:

Practice often

The more frequently someone is exposed to new skills or material, the faster they’ll start to integrate those into their repertoire. However, if you wait too long between rounds, and children might have lost progress they made, or have forgotten how to do it. Which may require a complete re-teach. A few times a week is the sweet spot for most children for these masterlist activities, but mileage may vary.

Steadily increase the level of challenge

When trying to build up someone’s working memory, for example, having them play 20 questions every day for a month is more likely to frustrate, annoy, or outright enrage them instead of helping. When you notice your child starting to master one activity, switch it up and offer something slightly more advanced. This is especially true for children with ADHD, since their brains can get bored very quickly without novel stimulation.

Weave in physical activity if possible

Types of physical activity that include character-building or mindfulness focuses, for example traditional martial arts or yoga, have the most evidence-based success in improving executive functioning. However, there’s plenty of other studies backing up the benefits of exercise and movement in general for executive dysfunction. Something is better than nothing!

As a final point, I’d also encourage you to brush up on any executive functioning skills you find yourself lacking in. It is usually much easier for our children to look to us for examples of how to live. Their functioning is even more likely to improve if your skills are in decent shape. You can even play these games or do joint activities with your child. Explain that you want both of you to improve your skills. Humility and honesty can go a long way with most children, and it just might improve their willingness to play along if they know you struggle like they do.

So without further ado, here is the Executive Functioning Activity Masterlist!

Organization Executive Functioning Activities

Time Management Executive Functioning Activities

  • Writing weekly, monthly, even yearly plans can help children visualize abstract concepts like time
  • Use things that ding! This includes timers, phone apps, watch alarms, clocks, etc
  • Tell stories- either printed or made up by you- over and over that emphasize a sequence. For example: first wake up, then brush teeth, then eat breakfast, etc
  • Posted schedules, especially those with eye-catching visuals or colors [We have a bundle of editable routine and schedule posters in the new shop, as an example]
  • Daily whiteboards: have children write the month, day, day of the week, and year. Include upcoming events and those from the recent past. Older children can add daily activities.
  • Time estimation games: how long will it take to drive to Grandma’s? How much time passes between tagging the front door then sprinting to the stop sign?
  • Learning a musical instrument

Planning & Problem Solving Executive Functioning Activities

Attention Executive Functioning Activities

  • Yoga
  • Martial Arts
  • Dance
  • Concentration card game
  • Red light, green light
  • Jump rope games & complicated variants (double dutch, chinese jump rope)
  • Hide & Seek, plus dim lighting versions like Flashlight Tag or Manhunt
  • Laser Tag, paintball, & hunting for older children
  • Learning a musical instrument
  • Reading books like I Spy
  • Rubik’s Cubes
  • Games that require you to follow one or many objects like “Who’s got the button” or “Lucky Ducky“

Working Memory Executive Functioning Activities

  • Matching card games like Go Fish
  • Singing rounds, or in vocal parts
  • 20 Questions, I Spy, or other guessing games
  • Any strategy-based board game like checkers, Battleship, chess, Settlers of Catan, or Ticket to Ride)
  • Cogmed is a computer-based strategy clinically shown to improve working memory
  • Hand-clapping games like Miss Mary Mack, A sailor went to sea, Double double, etc

Inhibition Executive Functioning Activities

So if you couldn’t tell, we are all SO excited about the new shop here at the Homeschool Resource Room. Go check it out if you find yourself in need of planners, graphic organizers, and editable schedules for the child in your life with executive dysfunction! [Or, you know, any child who might benefit from one of those!] Shop Now!