Organized and On Time: Tips for Executive Functioning for Kids

Organized and On Time: Tips for Executive Functioning for Kids

While some kids are naturals when it comes to organization and completing tasks on time, others struggle getting started on work, staying focused, forgetting homework assignments or losing and forgetting to turn in their work. They might procrastinate or rush through work and make careless mistakes. A child who exhibits these traits might be struggling with thinking skills called executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning refers to a group of brain skills that direct and organize our behavior – like the “conductor” of the brain. The brain uses this group of skills to make plans and organize what we are going to do and to set goals for ourselves and get started on a task. We also use these skills to carry out our goals and plans by strategizing how to accomplish a task, paying attention, monitoring our performance, stopping impulses and managing our time and space. Executive skills also include processing speed, how quickly we can complete tasks, and working memory, how we hold on to information for a short time (a few seconds) and use it.

Executive functioning skills are located in the prefrontal cortex of our brain, which begins development after birth but doesn’t finish growing until we are around 25 years old! That is why teenagers in high school are not as good at some of these skills as they will be by the time they turn 20.

Why do some children struggle with executive functioning?

Some kids just develop in this area more slowly! Unfortunately for these kids they are often seen as underachievers, or can be labeled as “lazy” by those who work with them.

However, sometimes kids struggle with executive functioning because they have a medical condition, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which affects how well they can use certain executive functions. Other medical conditions, such as seizures that originate in the frontal lobes of the brain, can also directly affect the brain’s ability to adequately use these skills.

What should I do if my child is struggling with executive function?

One of the first things a parent should do if their child is struggling with organization and staying on task is talk to their teacher. Teachers have a good sense of what is “normal” at your child’s age and what might be a weakness. You might consider daily communication with the teacher for a week or two to track what problems your child is having. Here’s one example of what that communication could look like:

If you suspect your child might have ADHD, it is important to talk to your pediatrician who can assess your child in their office or make a referral for assessment. Remember though, not all kids with executive functioning weaknesses have ADHD.

Finally, if you are concerned your child has serious difficulties with executive functioning, or you need help understanding their weaknesses, consider an evaluation with a neuropsychologist. 

What are some tips to help my child stay organized and focused if they struggle with executive functioning?

Here are some simple strategies you can implement in your house to help kids build executive functioning skills:

  • Make use of checklists and daily planners. Kids will need to be taught how to use these effectively. Start with showing, then coaching, then checking, until they can do it alone.
  • Teach how to break assignments into pieces, then write the due date and how long it will take to complete each piece.
  • Make visual schedules and post them around your house.
  • Teach kids flexible thinking by exposing them to jokes, riddles and puns. I also like books that make use of multiple word meanings to improve mental flexibility (like the Amelia Bedelia book series).
  • Play strategy games with kids, like chess or checkers.
  • Use visual timers and ask kids to work diligently for a set amount of time (say 15 minutes), then give them a break. This helps them learn to sustain attention and then uses initiation to get started again.

Many books and websites also offer information about helping kids learning executive functioning skills:

  • Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach their Potential (2009) by Dawson and Guare
  • Late, Lost and Unprepared: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning (2008) by Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel
  • Unstuck and On Target!: An Executive Function Curriculum to Improve Flexibility, Planning, and Organization (2021) by Cannon et al.
  • Check the “Resources” section of the website:

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