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What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning impacts all areas of our kids’ lives, from learning in the classroom to playing with friends, building relationships and regulating emotions. These intrinsic skills are a set of mental processes that help us connect past experiences with present action and are crucial in activities such as:

  • Making plans
  • Keeping track of time
  • Multitasking
  • Using past knowledge in the present
  • Evaluating ideas and reflecting on our work
  • Asking for help or seeking more information when we need it
  • Engaging in group dynamics and taking turns in discussions
  • Making mid-task corrections while thinking, reading and writing

Our little ones with learning and attention difficulties, such as ADHD and Autism often struggle in developing these skills that most of us take for granted. While executive dysfunction can be seen at any age, it tends to become more apparent as kids begin their journey at school. Your child may have difficulties with their executive function if they have trouble:

  • Planning or initiating tasks independently and comprehending how much time it will take to complete
  • Telling stories (verbally or in writing)
  • Communicating details in an organised, sequential manner
  • Memorising and retrieving information while doing something with it
  • Using impulse control (stopping and thinking before acting)
  • Managing feelings by thinking about goals
  • Changing strategies or revising plans when conditions change
  • Keeping track of information or materials like schoolbooks

Through good teaching, trial and error, most kids can overcome or compensate for their executive functioning weaknesses however, those with learning and attention difficulties may need extra assistance through sessions with a therapist. You can help your child recognise, improve and work around their areas of executive dysfunction through strategies like:

  • Teaching them to think long-term by breaking complex tasks into manageable chunks (like movie scenes).
  • Creating a calendar together for daily routines, including different tasks like homework or chores. When doing this you can teach your child to estimate the time each task will take, how to prioritise and get them to check off tasks as they’re completed.
  • Helping them create organised spaces so they can find the materials they need easily and independently. Try setting a regular time during the week for organising their backpack or bedroom. Work together to make this a fun experience so that it becomes a habit! 
  • Teaching them to think flexibly through activities that involve multiple-meaning words, visuals and number puzzles. For example, you could read a choose your own adventure book or demonstrate the different meanings a word can have through puns and riddles.
  • Adding visuals or verbal cues to tasks to help them improve their spatial and auditory working memory skills. For example, you could create colourful diagrams together for different maths problems or simply ask them to repeat a task back to you to assist in their auditory memory
  • Using self-talk to promote reflection and greater awareness of their learning and performing process. You can model this behaviour by talking through your own checklists, how you reviewed and revised plans and rectified errors
  • Teaching them about emotions and actions through resources that they already love. For example, you could watch a movie and pause a scene to discuss how the character might be feeling and why they are reacting a certain way. Take it a step further and ask your child how they would respond to the situation, giving them meaningful feedback.

If your child has problems with their executive functioning, it is likely they are experiencing low self-esteem due to learning delays in the classroom and/or difficulties connecting with their peers. Providing consistent, ongoing encouragement by recognising even the smallest improvements goes a long way in boosting their confidence and helping them feel motivated to keep building on their executive functioning skills.

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