Children are not born with executive functioning skills, they are born with a capacity to develop them. Executive function filters distractions, focuses attention, and prioritizes resources to meet life’s changing demands. However, some children — and adults — have difficulties establishing these skills.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive functioning consists of three types of mental processes that help everyone to learn and make healthy decisions:
- Working Memory: Storing and processing information over brief periods of time.
- Inhibitory control: Resisting impulses and thinking before acting.
- Cognitive flexibility: Focusing and shifting attention in response to different situations.
The cognitive processes involved in executive function are developed through meaningful experiences and social interactions that require self-regulation. Here are six evidence-based strategies to help boost your child’s executive functioning skills.
Scaffold the Development of New Skills
Provide substantial support when your child is first learning a new skill, and gradually step back as your child increases in proficiency. For example, if your child has to complete a science experiment, help break down the tasks that need to be completed and create a timeline to finish the project. Discuss the process, and give your child increasing opportunities to complete the steps independently.
Create External Reminders
If your child has difficulty holding information in their mind, remove the barrier by making the information accessible at all times. Kids who lose track of long-term projects will benefit from daily planners and electronic alerts; kids who are chronically late can self-monitor by using wall clocks and wristwatches; and kids who have trouble retaining spoken or written lessons can improve their performance by recording audio or taking notes. Learning how to compensate for working memory deficits by making information externally visible is a valuable skill that will enhance your child’s achievement and self-esteem.
Play Strategy Games
Kids learn best when they are invested in an activity. Card games like spades, board games like chess, and computer games like Minecraft that require focused attention, quick decision-making, and tracking progress are great activities for developing working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Practice Coordinated Movemen
Experimental research is showing that physical activity that requires cognitive engagement and coordination helps improve executive function. Participating in a team sport or martial art, playing tag, or jumping rope with friends all require remembering complex rules, selective attention to other players’ actions, flexible responses, and impulse inhibition.
Play Music, Sing, Dance, and Act
Participating in performing arts classes builds working memory by requiring children to recall musical phrases, blocking, or lines. When children create imaginative skits and rehearse rhythmic movements, they learn how to concentrate, think flexibly, and self-regulate.
Teach long-term achievement with a reward system
Children who struggle with impulsive behavior, disorganization, and low motivation can learn to improve their performance through practice. If your child lacks internal motivation, you can inspire positive changes by providing structured goals and incentives. If your kid gets frustrated by having to wait for a prize, offer small rewards for daily achievements and larger rewards for maintaining progress over time. For example, your second grade son might get to choose a favorite treat if he submits his homework on time, but he could earn a trip to the movies or a slumber party with a friend if he submits his homework consistently for a week.
Elana Hunter, LPCC-S is the Clinical Director of Cleveland Health and Wellness Center. To learn more about the holistic mental health services available for children and families, visit clevelandhealthandwellness.org.