The Tobin School

How to Support Your Child’s Executive Function Skills

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, “Executive function and self-regulation are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

Adults and Teenagers Juggle and Prioritize

As we manage our busy lives, we have ample opportunities to practice our skills by juggling family, work, home and social obligations. Even middle and high school students are beginning to hone their skills by navigating their daily schedules with multiple homework assignments, extra-curriculars and longer term projects and—when needed—prioritizing tasks to meet deadlines. As the pace of their life gets faster, their executive function skills become vital to keep up with life’s demands.

Young Children Need to Develop These Coping Skills

When it comes to young children, how can a parent or teacher set the stage to build these important skills? By modeling. Young children need to see these skills in action in their day-to-day lives. Here are three ideas to promote Executive Functions skills in your young child:

  • Talk about time & make it visible: We all know that young children have yet to develop a good sense of time, and we can help them begin to visualize time passing and how it affects the things they do. Talk through a task before you start – cleaning up a puzzle, for example. Ask them to estimate how long it will take. Show them how long that amount of time is on a clock (many clocks can be written on with dry erase markers and wiped off easily). Or use a visual TimeTimer; at Tobin we found these cool sandtimers from Lakeshore to see if their predictions were right or wrong. Did it take more time than they thought or less time? Make it a game to see if they can do a task in a certain amount of time, and help them begin to plan their own time (“five minutes to clean up before we go outside”).
  • Walk through the steps of a multi-step project: In this way, you serve as the child’s prefrontal cortex by modeling the way we plan out a task. For example, if your child wants to paint, help them come up with all the items they need to paint a picture (the paint, brushes, paper, a smock, a table cover). Then walk them through collecting them all. They need lots of practice hearing and moving through the steps with you before they can take on tasks like this on their own. Cooking together is a great way to demonstrate all the preparatory steps you have to do before you can eat the product.
  • Ask them for a plan before they jump into playing: If your child is in the sandbox and wants to make a cake or build a castle, encourage them to think deeper about the project. For example, who is the cake for? What will they decorate it with? Who lives in their castle? What does the person need in their castle? A tower? A lot of rooms? A place for horses? This process not only encourages them to think through a task, but to make a plan and figure out how to make it happen.

Children need a lot of practice to build these important life-skills – but it’s easy to incorporate this practice in your daily routine. Have fun!