Supporting Your Child’s Executive Functioning during the Back to School Season

By Francisco Ayala and Jennifer Walsh-Rurak, Ed.D

The first time you hear your child struggles with executive functioning could be a shock, not only because childhood and adolescence are characterized by the development of these skills, but because so many adults struggle with these cognitive functions even when they are fully-developed.

Though “executive functioning” has become a very common term, many of us don’t fully understand what executive functions are; often we only equate executive function deficits with poor time management and disorganization.

Though children and adolescents who have poor executive functioning are more disorganized than other individuals, the cognitive skills related to executive functioning go far beyond organization.

Executive functioning is the essential self-regulating skills that allow us to accomplish just about everything we do. They allow us to plan in the short and long-term, prioritize tasks, organize ourselves, control inhibitions, make decisions, shift from one activity to another, understand the consequences of our actions, and to adjust future actions and decisions based on those consequences.

Strong executive functioning is vital not only to a child’s success in school, but to their long-term success and ability to be independent.

Though schools and educational specialists can provide targeted interventions to develop these skills, as parents there are many different strategies we can use to help bolster and develop these skills in our children. Particularly now as students are headed back to school, taking the time to consider how you can support your child’s executive functioning can be critical to a successful school year.

What follows are some strategies you can use to aid them in tackling academic tasks and other activities which require planning, organization, and follow through.

Use Checklists
Students with poor executive functioning skills can struggle to conceptualize all the
steps necessary to complete a complex task. Clearly defining the steps needed to complete a task can make the task less daunting and improve the child’s ability to complete it. For example, creating a checklist that outlines a morning routine and charting out all of the steps necessary to get out the door, can improve their ability to manage this process independently and ensure that they consistently complete all of the necessary tasks to be prepared for school.

Additionally, checking off each task can help create sense of accomplishment, which can send students off to school in positive mindset. It is important to make you include steps for gathering and transporting all the materials and assignments needed for a successful school day.

Establish a Homework Routine
Having a consistent homework routine can support students with executive function
deficits as it creates a structure and ordered series of steps for completing independent
work. It can be beneficial to create a checklist of steps to complete during homework
time, including reviewing assignments, prioritizing tasks, making regular progress on
long-term assignments, and filing completed assignments in a way that allows them to be accessed effectively when they need to be turned in. Work with your child to determine how much time to allot for homework each night and where homework should be completed, being cognizant of what resources are needed to complete these tasks and eliminating unnecessary distractions. Additionally, you should highlight any other commitments that need to be considered, such as dinner time, family commitments, or other regular activities, that should be accounted for when allocating time for homework completion.

Set Time Limits
When making a checklist and determining a homework routine, work with your child to
assign an appropriate time limit for each step, particularly if it is a more comprehensive,
longer-term project.

You can support your child by breaking down a variety of assignments into incremental steps and determining how long they might take. Students with poor executive functioning skills may struggle to think of all of the steps required to complete an assignment, particularly a long-term one, so you can support them by thinking through all of the critical steps and allocating enough time to complete each one.

Develop at Organizational/Time Management System
Not all organizational systems are alike, and every individual has a system that will work best for them. From digital calendars, to color-coded binders, or hand-written planners, you should work with your child to experiment with a variety of different systems until you find the one that will function best for them (be sure not to get stuck with one, as their needs may change over time).

As you experiment with different organizational systems and tools, be sure to focus not just on using a system, but how to use it effectively. Kids who struggle with executive functioning issues have poor working memory, which makes it more challenging for them to remember things like homework assignments, so having a way to capture assignments is particularly critical for this population of students. As students find a system that works for them and begin to use it effectively, consider having students use this to organize their personal commitments as well. This is great practice for independently managing their time when they are adults.

Don’t Forget the ‘Why’
Students who struggle with executive functioning may bristle about dedicating time and energy to getting organized. Thus, it is essential that they understand the rationale behind the strategies you are practicing with them.

Children and adolescents with poor organizational skills often feel pressured by their time commitments and responsibilities, and because they tend to prefer instant gratification, they can be particularly averse to delay.

Explaining the rationale behind a particular way of doing things, can make a child more likely to commit to doing it. This is an important strategy, even beyond organization.

Individuals with executive functioning deficits may struggle to understand and predict the implications of their actions (or lack thereof) so it is important to guide them in understanding the value of different tasks and the positive impact they may have.

Dedicating time to discussing the why and impact of actions will support them in making more rational and less impulsive decisions as they mature. Students with executive functioning challenges can struggle with organization and planning.

However, with your support, and that of their teachers, students with these deficits can
develop the skills necessary to find success both in school and beyond.

Dr. Jennifer Walsh-Rurak and Francisco Ayala provide regional leadership support to the Fusion Academy schools on the East Coast. Fusion Academy is a private middle and high school that unlocks social, emotional, and academic growth in every student by utilizing an innovative, one-to-one instructional model. Fusion is a growing organization with over 40 private schools across the country which have revolutionized the way a school can serve students.