Executive Functioning Skills for Kids: The Ultimate Guide

All kids need to learn these important cognitive skills, but kids with ADHD and autism might struggle more

Emily Veno
June 6, 2023

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The term “executive functioning” might sound like corporate jargon at first, but in parenting circles, we hear references to it all the time. Many parents hear about these critical cognitive skills but are unsure of what they truly mean for their child's development. As it turns out, executive functioning is perhaps the most essential skill for all other forms of problem-solving.

It’s important to know where your learner is in terms of their executive functioning development, especially if they’re not neurotypical, as kids with ADHD, autism, and other mental health and learning challenges can struggle more.

In this post, we'll unravel the mystery of executive functioning, helping you understand its importance and how you can support your child in nurturing these essential skills. So buckle up for a flight into the bustling 'air traffic control' center of the brain, as we journey through the world of executive functioning together.

What are executive functioning skills?

Imagine the brain as an air traffic control system. It is constantly busy with flights coming and going, and must organize, prioritize, and coordinate tasks flawlessly. The same analogy applies to our brains, especially when describing executive function skills. Executive functioning skills are central cognitive processes, headquartered in the prefrontal cortex, that manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions, guiding us through daily tasks and decisions.

A team from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child has categorized these skills into three major types: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control.

  1. Working memory is like your brain's notepad. It's where we store short-term information, useful for completing tasks, solving problems, and maintaining attention during complex activities like schoolwork. Think of how you need to remember how many tablespoons of olive oil are supposed to go into the recipe when you move away from the instructions to grab the measuring cup and pour.
  2. Cognitive flexibility, also known as flexible thinking, lets us adapt to new situations, shift our thinking based on different demands, and view issues from multiple perspectives. It's a crucial skill for multitasking and decision-making. Think of how if you are cooking in an unfamiliar place, you might need to use a measuring cup that is labeled differently from the one you use at home.  
  3. Inhibitory control involves self-control, impulse control, and emotional control. It helps us suppress impulses and prioritize our responses, an essential part of self-regulation. Think of how when your baking comes out of the oven, you try your best to wait until the brownies are cool enough to eat before taking a bite.

Understanding and developing these executive functioning skills is a critical aspect of child development, impacting kids’ academic progress, social skills, mental health, and much more.

Of course, adults aren’t perfect at any of these skills! Maybe there’s one from the list above you know you struggle with, as well. But adults do typically tend to be much better at executive functioning through a process of normal development.


What are the signs of executive functioning problems in children?

Children with executive functioning issues, such as those with ADHD or autism, may face challenges in various areas. These can become evident in early childhood, intensify in middle school, and persist into high school and adult life.

However, children don’t have to have a diagnosis to struggle with executive functioning. All kids are learning how to develop these skills, so some struggle is natural for everyone. And some research suggests that lots of screen time and lack of practice completing tasks and practicing adaptability may contribute to executive functioning issues.

Here’s what you might notice if your child is struggling with executive functioning:

  1. One of the most common signs of executive function deficits is a difficulty in task initiation and completion. Children may struggle to start or finish their schoolwork, even when they understand the requirements.
  2. Problems with working memory may manifest as forgetfulness or difficulty holding onto information.
  3. Children with deficits in cognitive flexibility may struggle to adapt to new situations or switch tasks effectively. They may also have difficulties with decision-making and problem-solving.
  4. Issues with inhibitory control can present as difficulties in emotional control, self-control, and impulse control. These children may struggle with self-regulation, often leading to emotional outbursts, impulsive actions, or difficulties in social situations.
  5. In terms of metacognition, children may struggle with self-monitoring and self-reflection, often leading to difficulties in recognizing and rectifying their mistakes.

How to help kids build executive functioning skills

At Prisma, our learning coaches work 1:1 with learners to help them build and practice executive functioning skills. We also offer a “Life Coach” for learners who might need additional support.

There are several strategies parents and caregivers can use to help children develop these essential skills at home:

  1. Practice Time Management: Encourage your child to use planners or calendars to track their tasks and deadlines. This not only helps them become more organized but also fosters their ability for self-monitoring. Prisma learners are fond of color-coded Google calendars and using the Pomodoro method.
  2. Interactive Games: Games that require attention, strategy, and adaptability can help improve cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. Board games are great for this, since they’re less distracting and overstimulating than online games. Check out this great list from Understood for specific ideas.
  3. Model Behavior: Show your child how to self-regulate, solve problems, and make decisions. You can narrate what you are doing aloud as a way to demonstrate how you navigate through complex tasks or handle stressful situations.
  4. Build a Business: Planning and running a money-making scheme is a great way to practice starting & finishing tasks, adapting in the face of setbacks, and more. Plus, your child’s business can connect to their interests, which is more motivating for your child than more boring forms of practice. Prisma learners complete our Build a Business learning cycle, and we wrote a blog post about how to design an entrepreneurship project for kids step by step.
  5. Household Tasks: Most chores and home projects require a ton of executive functioning skills. Depending on your child’s age, you might have them re-organize a closet, plan a week of meals for your family, or load a dishwasher by following a system. Support them when they get stuck, but otherwise, try to choose a task that they can complete independently to allow maximum practice.
  6. Coding: Programming is a great context for learning executive functioning skills. Kids need to use working memory to think through lines of code, cognitive flexibility to respond to bugs, and inhibitory control to manage frustration. Plus, many kids who struggle with executive functioning love video games and may be motivated to make their own. Learners with ADHD and autism loved our Games for Change cycle, when they got to code a video game to teach the world about kids who think differently. Our favorite coding tools are Scratch and MakeCode.
  7. Encourage Goal Setting: Teach your child to set goals and devise plans to achieve them. This can promote their problem-solving skills, enhance their ability to prioritize tasks, and strengthen their decision-making skills. Check out our blog post on this topic here.

Professional Help for Executive Functioning Issues

If your child continues to struggle with executive function skills despite your best efforts, it might be beneficial to seek professional help. There are many professionals, including psychologists, occupational therapists, and special education teachers, trained to support children with executive function challenges. Search your area for service providers and look for listed specialty in executive functioning.

Some children might also benefit from an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school, which provides specialized instruction and services tailored to their needs. Some families find that alternative schooling approaches, such as homeschooling, or online schooling, such as Prisma, better allow their learner to learn in the way that works for them, free from distractions and able to go at their own pace.

In addition, there are intervention programs and therapeutic approaches designed to improve executive function skills, such as Cogmed for working memory or Unstuck and On Target for flexibility and goal setting.

Building robust executive function skills in children, whether they are neurotypical or have learning disabilities, is critical for their future success. With the right support and patience, all children can overcome their executive function challenges and reach their full potential.

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