Executive Functioning 101

What you need to know about executive function to better support your child this school year.

No matter if your child is in kindergarten, middle school, or [gasp!] heading off to college soon, it’s never too early—or too late—to begin paying attention to their executive function skills to make sure they’re prepared and set up for success both in and outside the classroom. In this blog post, I’ll be providing an overview of Executive Functioning, or EF for short, so you can understand:

  1. What it is
  2. How it affects students
  3. What you can do to better support your child

What is Executive Functioning?

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “[e]xecutive 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 students are taught to read, write, multiply, and divide, they need support in developing executive function skills as well—and some children require more time and assistance than others.

How does EF affect my child?

While it’s easy to imagine how executive function skills would impact a student in the classroom, there are plenty of other “real-world” scenarios where these capabilities come into play as well. Attention, impulse control, and the ability to follow directions are all examples of EF skills, and as children develop, so too does the complexity of their executive functioning. The ability to plan ahead, solve problems in new ways, collaborate with others, and self-reflect begin to emerge in middle and high school, and these form the building blocks of many of the important life skills children will need in college and beyond. 

Whether we’re talking about soccer or executive functioning, every child develops at their own pace; however, there are a few common signs that can indicate challenges with EF skills:

  • Elementary School: lack of impulse control, difficulty regulating emotions and exercising mental flexibility, and/or having trouble remembering what to do or when to do it
  • Middle School: trouble with organization and/or time management as well as difficulty starting a non-preferred task and/or mapping out multi-step assignments 
  • High School: struggling to reach independence, difficulty managing current and future-oriented tasks (e.g., planning to anticipate future events and setting goals), and trouble generating problem-solving strategies

Chances are, your child has exhibited some—if not all—of these behaviors at one point or another. After all, kids are kids, and they’re going to progress at different rates. That being said, if your child seems to have a really hard time staying on task or following through on an assignment, it’s possible they need additional support when it comes to developing their executive function skills.

What can I do to support my child if they struggle with executive functioning skills?

Like most skills, executive functioning is an area in which you can absolutely help your child develop and improve, and reading this article is a great first step! Additionally, establishing a few basic routines and making sure your child’s work environment at home is conducive to productivity and focus will provide an excellent foundation. And, if writing seems to be a particular struggle for your child (which is very common for kids with EF challenges), be sure to check out my guide, “Writer’s Block? Follow These 5 Steps to Help Your Child Write Essays with Confidence.”

For some students, one-on-one support from an EF coach can be instrumental in helping them learn new strategies, gain confidence, and reach greater independence. In my nearly twenty years working as a tutor, there is nothing that brings me more joy than when a student proclaims, “Oh! I get it!” and it is my mission to foster a lifelong love of learning in every child.

Want to learn more? Below are some of my favorite executive-functioning resources, and I also recommend reviewing this list of standard interventions, which includes easy-to-implement strategies as well as common obstacles (and how to address them). 

If you have a specific question about your child or my coaching services, feel free to reach out to me at faith@faithpine.com


Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential  by Peg Dawson, Ed.D. & Richard Guare, Ph.D. 

Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder by  Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. & John J. Ratey, M.D. 

Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up: Help Your Child Overcome Slow Processing Speed and Succeed in a Fast-Paced World by Ellen B. Braaten, Ph.D. & Brian Willoughby, Ph.D.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. 

Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn, Ph.D. &  Laurie Dietzel, Ph.D.

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