How to help children with executive functioning issues

Executive functioning is a term we may hear a lot these days. So what is it?

Executive functioning is the group of cognitive capacities we use daily to learn, work and function. It facilitates the behaviours required to plan and achieve goals. It is the brain’s management system responsible for seeing a task through from start to finish. Executive functioning development begins in early childhood and continues up until the early 20’s. It is also a strong predictor of academic success. The executive functioning skills of self-regulation and their ability to pay sustained attention, are prerequisites for learning.  

The seven fundamental executive functioning skills include: 

  • Inhibition / impulse control – being able to stop and think before initiating a task, using emotional control to manage one’s feelings, to successfully achieve goals, and complete tasks. 
  • Working memory – being able to use the information held in one’s memory to complete a task. 
  • Self-monitoring – self evaluating how one is performing on a task and being able to keep track and reflect back on progress 
  • Flexibility – being able to adapt to changing conditions, includes revisiting ideas, changing strategies, and using problem-solving. 
  • Organisation – arranging one’s thoughts and materials in an orderly fashion. 
  • Planning -  being able to generate a plan of action and prioritise the steps necessary to achieve one’s goal. 
  • Time management – being able to work to a schedule, complete tasks on time, enhancing one’s punctuality and productivity. 

So what does a child with strong executive functioning skills look like? 

  • They can follow instructions independently. 
  • They have a good sense of time. 
  • They can manage and organise their possessions. 
  • They  can easily adapt to disruptions, changes and different opinions. 
  • They are able to manage their emotions. 
  • They can work undistracted and stick to challenging tasks that require sustained effort and attention. 
  • They can wait their turn. 
  • They can start a task independently. 
  • They can follow the rules of a game. 
  • They can figure out independently how to solve a problem. 
  • They can easily switch between tasks and activities. 
  • They can pay attention to and remember details in a story. 

How best to support and develop a child’s executive functioning skills: 

  • Provide clear, explicit expectations for all tasks and assignments. Make written instructions available. 
  • Incorporate goal-setting into tasks, help your child create a plan to achieve their goal.  
  • Break down assignments into smaller, step by step tasks, put the due dates on a calendar to allow for better time concept and management. 
  • Build in variety or choices – let your child suggest what sequence, format they would prefer to use. 
  • Shorten tasks to reduce your child’s workload. 
  • Help your child plan tasks by providing templates such as graphic organisers, check-lists and visuals – this provides them with a cognitive anchor. 
  • Model using executive functioning skills – use the vocabulary, talk out aloud, problem solve together with your child. 
  • Model and teach reflexive questioning, this makes your child active in self-monitoring and self-correction and improves their self-talk / inner voice. Ask questions: ‘How did you do that?’, ‘Where should your thoughts be right now?’, ‘What’s the next step of your plan?’, ‘Did your plan work, what would you change next time?’. 
  • Use visualisation – this allows your child to internalise their plan; walking through, step by step, in their mind what they see themselves doing to complete the task; ‘First I see myself colouring in the house and then the bicycle and lastly the small pond.’
  • Set timers to assist with time management. 
  • Provide predictable routines and rules. 
  • Try to incorporate varied experiences and challenges into your daily life to strengthen your child’s executive functioning skills. 

For more information, visit  

By Gretchen Durham – Speech & Language Therapist at Bellavista School  

Reference: Sumpter, T (2021). The Seeds of Learning: A Cognitive Processing Model for Speech, Language, Literacy and Executive Functioning. USA: ELH Publishing, LLC 

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