No one is born knowing how to problem solve—in order to have their needs met, infants will cry and parents or caregivers will learn what the baby most likely needs in that moment. As children age, they develop the ability to work through problems and use complicated, multi-step processes to reach a goal. The skills that are developed along the way are part of the executive functioning skill set, and while many children will learn them as they go, some children, including those with developmental delays or disabilities, may encounter more difficulties. 

What is executive functioning? 

Executive functioning is an umbrella term that includes a set of brain functions that help us regulate behavior and meet goals. For children, this could look like being able to stay seated at a desk for a specific amount of time or following multi-step directions to complete a task. 

What are executive functioning skills? 

There are eight executive function skills. They are: 

  • initiation, or getting started 
  • inhibition, or being able to stop 
  • flexibility, or the ability to shift between physical or mental tasks 
  • emotional control 
  • working memory (remembering one- or two-step instructions, for example) 
  • organization 
  • planning 
  • self-monitoring 

When all of these skills are working together, they help us achieve our goals. When they are not working together, it can create challenges for children in meeting their desired goals. 

The benefits of building executive functioning skills 

Helping children develop executive functioning skills leads to more positive outcomes in a variety of ways. These skills help them work through complex school work, stay focused, and avoid disrupting classes. They're able to learn the importance of decision-making, adaptability, and critical thinking, which will help them as they grow into adults. They'll be more likely to make healthy decisions regarding nutrition and exercise and resist taking unnecessary risks or engaging in unhealthy behaviors. And they'll be able to model these skills for other people, helping to build successful teams and relationships. 

What are signs of poor executive functioning? 

Some signs of poor executive functioning, or executive dysfunction, in children could include: 

  • difficulty getting started with a task or procrastination 
  • frequently requiring prompting to get started or to move to the next part of the task 
  • inability to regulate emotions when frustrated or stuck 
  • inability or unwillingness to adapt 
  • difficulty holding information in mind or recalling past experiences to complete a task 
  • difficulty setting strategic priorities 
  • inability to recognize when work is not being completed 

There are some interventions to help children learn how to manage these behaviors and develop the executive function skills they need to succeed. 

How can executive function skills help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? 

Executive functions develop slowly, progressing until around age 25. Some children may have trouble developing these skills as they are growing—children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities and other special needs are more likely to have difficulty with executive functions. 

The journey of parenting a child where missing socks are as common as misplaced homework and listening seems to be an almost accidental activity can be very stressful and exhausting. Many of the signs of poor executive functioning—failing to pay close attention to details, making careless mistakes, not following through on instructions, failing to finish tasks, difficulty getting organized, losing things, etc.—are characteristics described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5 (DSM-5) and are textbook signs of ADHD.

Children with difficulty focusing and listening don’t learn executive function skills in their natural environment through observation. Some kids may need more systematic teaching, just as we offer for academic tasks. Adults spend hours and hours teaching math operations in a structured manner—we don’t expect kids to “get it” by staring at equations, we break it down for them because unless a math operation is clearly taught, a child will not likely figure it out on their own. 

The same approach is needed to teach executive functions to children with attention deficits and hyperactivity. And let’s be clear—no number of “consequences,” bargaining, guilt trips, arguing or criticizing is going to magically instill focus, emotional control, and organizational skills in the child. 

So, here is the fun part: once a child starts getting the hang of these executive function skills, teaching math operations and other complex tasks becomes an easier task! It’s like finding the first few pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. In addition, teaching executive function skills to a child with ADHD isn’t just about making today and tomorrow easier, it’s also about giving them the keys to a successful future. 

How can we help children develop executive functioning? 

There are three types of assistance that parents, caregivers and teachers can provide to help kids who are developing their executive functioning skills. 

Environmental support 

By modifying the environment, you are helping to take away some of the factors that might inhibit learning. Modifying the environment helps children organize their thoughts, materials, and time, giving them more energy to focus on what they need to start the task and plan ahead. It reduces the child’s sense of feeling overwhelmed and bridges the gap between task expectations and the child’s executive functioning challenges. Some ways in which you could modify the environment include: 

  • visual supports, such as cue cards, white boards or checklists 
  • flow charts to help children break down tasks and identifying and labeling the first step 
  • timers, calendars, technologies such as online task lists or reminders 
  • establishing clear routines and preparing the child for unexpected changes 
  • identifying stressful environments and reducing noise and clutter 
  • creating a dedicated workspace with boundaries and limited distractions 

Teaching executive function skills 

Children learn many behaviors from simply watching the people around them, but many things still need to be taught. Take tying shoelaces, for example. Children can watch an adult tie their shoelaces over and over but they probably still need more hands-on engagement before they will understand how to tie their own shoelaces. 

We can use the shoelaces as an example of teaching executive functions. 

  • A child recognizes that shoes are needed and gets them from the closet—that's task initiation. 
  • A child may want to go outside right away, but they pause and take the time to put on the shoes—inhibition. 
  • A child realizes that the shoes they want to wear are maybe not available at the moment; maybe the shoes were left in the car or at another house, but the child is able to shift and choose a different pair—shifting. 
  • A child gets frustrated trying to tie the shoelaces but doesn't let the frustration derail their efforts—emotional control. 
  • A child remembers most of the steps of tying the shoelaces—working memory. 
  • A child knows where the shoes are kept and places them back after wearing them—organization. 
  • A child can tell you the general steps needed to tie the shoes and then perform them—planning. 
  • A child recognizes when the tied shoelaces are maybe too tight or too loose and makes adjustments—self-monitoring. 

All of these things can be taught as a child progresses. For children with developmental delays or disabilities, they may need extra help or interventions to achieve some of these skills. 

Positive reinforcement 

Incorporating positive reinforcement techniques when children are learning a new skill or behavior helps to build the skill by making it something they want to repeat. Building off the shoelaces example, perhaps a child who ties their shoelaces successfully is able to pick out a small charm to attach to their shoelaces, which means they want to keep tying their shoelaces to get additional charms.

Identify something that helps to reinforce positive behaviors in your child—it could be as simple as a high-five or a fist bump, or playing their favorite song so they can excitedly dance around. 

Learning executive function skills helps children become thriving adults. For children who may need extra support with these skills, there is help available. 

Extra help for children with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD 

Bradley Hospital offers Unstuck and On Target, an online coaching program for parents and caregivers of children with attention deficit or social communication challenges who are struggling to stay on task, control their emotions, follow through with directions, plan ahead, or otherwise develop their executive functioning skills. This research-based online program includes weekly online modules that can be completed at your own pace and are in combination with counseling sessions to support parents and caregivers. Visit us online to learn more about this program or call 401-432-1119

For more tips on helping children grow and thrive, visit the Growing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Kristin S. Knapp-Ines, PhD

Kristin S. Knapp-Ines, PhD

Kristin Knapp-Ines, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and board certified behavior analyst at Bradley Hospital.