What Are Executive Function Challenges?

Help Your Struggling Child Overcome These Issues

How to Spot Executive Function Challenges in Your Children

Key to Strengthening These Skills

You may have heard teachers, educators or even other parents discussing “executive function” challenges in children. Interest in these skills has risen sharply recently, largely because research has revealed that kids rely on executive function skills to perform to their potential in school.

What exactly are executive function skills? Adults and children alike use these skills every day to do things like plan our time, focus our attention, hold information in our minds and juggle priorities. [i] Kids develop these skills starting at infancy and continuing into their late teens and early twenties.

In school, children with strong executive function skills complete their assignments on time, remember what they’re taught in class, participate actively in the classroom, filter outside distractions to stay on task, develop stronger relationships with their teachers and easily maintain self-control.

However, children with weak executive function skills may struggle with these same tasks. Additionally, because research is continuing to emerge on this topic, executive function challenges may not be easily apparent.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to spot executive function challenges in your children. We’ll also investigate how you can help your children strengthen these skills, setting them up to excel in the classroom and beyond. 

What Are Executive Function Skills?

As a reminder from the previous article, executive functions are skills everyone uses to organize and act on information. [ii] Put simply, these are “high order thinking patterns”[iii] that we all use to successfully navigate the world we live in.

One popular model breaks down executive functions into eight skills:

The 8 Executive Function Skills

  1. Impulse control – Helps your child think before acting.
  2. Emotional control – Helps your child keep feelings in check.
  3. Flexible thinking – Allows your child to adjust to the unexpected.
  4. Working memory – Helps your child keep key information in mind, such as remembering directions.
  5. Self-monitoring – Allows your child to evaluate progress.
  6. Planning and prioritizing – Helps your child decide on a goal and a plan to meet it.
  7. Task initiation – Helps your child take action and get started.
  8. Organization – Lets your child keep track of things physically and mentally, including figurative items like one’s train of thought and literal things like homework or a cell phone.[iv]

Like many of the skills your children will attain during their development, executive function skills develop over time. In fact, these skills can be some of the slowest to mature. Although they do begin to develop in infancy, they’re often not fully formed until a child enters the late teens or early twenties.[v]

Children with stronger executive function skills will find themselves more easily able to manage time, focus in the classroom, plan and organize items, remember details, and more. For a more in depth overview on executive function, check out our Executive Function Overview.

What Do Executive Function Challenges Look Like?

Although there is no official clinical diagnosis called “executive function disorder,” you may hear it referred to as such when discussing weak executive function skills. Because executive function is the “self-management system of the brain,” children who struggle with these skills may have trouble organizing and planning, maintaining focus, shifting between tasks and decisions and managing their emotions. [vi]

You may have seen your children wrestle with some of these issues without recognizing these challenges as symptoms of an executive functioning issue. Because your children are constantly developing—and growing in and out of “phases”—it can be hard to separate a long-term issue with something your children will “grow out of.”

To help you understand what to look out for, common symptoms of weak executive function skills may include:

  • Your child constantly forgets items in the morning, even though you’ve tried everything: laying it all out the night before, making checklists, etc.
  • Your son doesn’t turn in his homework because he forgot to write down his assignment or because he lost the worksheet.
  • Your daughter may act out in the classroom, speak at inappropriate times or act out her emotions without self-control.
  • Your son may have a hard time focusing in the classrooms. Small distractions may derail him, and he may not absorb what he’s learning or be able to participate actively in the classroom.
  • Your daughter may struggle to plan and manage her time so that she doesn’t finish her in-school assignments or homework.
  • Your son struggles with his friends at school because he often says improper things or dominates the conversation without realizing it. He struggles to adjust to his friends’ verbal and social cues.
  • Your daughter often doesn’t finish her assignments before dinner because she struggles to get started when faced with new different assignments. Instead of choosing one, she doesn’t do anything at all.
  • Your son struggles to move from one activity to the next and he may also not respond well to a change in routine. For example, he may not want to transition from evening screen time to dinner, and when he finds out that you’re not having pizza, even though it’s Friday night, he may explode with emotion.[iv]

How Do These Issues Affect Your Children Both in and out of the Classroom?

We all use executive function skills throughout the day, from getting ready in the morning to responding to shifting schedules to accomplishing our planned activities. In short, executive function skills are “high order thinking patterns”[v] that we all use to successfully navigate the world we live in.

From a big picture point of view, executive function challenges may interfere with forming critical friendships. For example, children with executive function issues may lose things they borrow from a friend, causing discord. Their “inflexible” point of view may make it difficult to see things from a friend’s perspective. They may simply blurt out whatever is on their mind, making other people uncomfortable. And finally, they may act out emotionally when presented with a challenge. [vi]

Within a school environment, children who struggle with executive functions are under more pressure than ever. [vii] Children are asked to do increasingly sophisticated tasks at a younger age, and if they don’t have the skills to carry out these assignments, they may find themselves anxious and frustrated. [viii] They may also develop a belief that school is “too hard” or they’re “not good” at school, which can derail an academic career that’s just barely gotten started.

More specifically, these children may struggle with:

    • Good behavior in the classroom – They can’t wait to be called on in class, so they instead shout out the answer, frustrating the teacher.
    • Planning or initiating activities or projects – When asked to work independently, they can’t get started, have trouble remembering directions and don’t plan adequate time to work on the pieces they’re supposed to.
    • Managing their supplies – They’re constantly losing things. Their cubby or desk may be crammed with stuff in no particular order, and their backpacks are messy, so they never have the item they need.
    • Reading – They may find it challenging to focus, sound out unfamiliar words, follow the narrative of a story and understand figurative concepts like metaphors.
    • Making adaptations to their day – They may get frustrated when asked to stop what they’re doing at school and move on to another project, getting them out of sync with their peers.
    • Creating social relationships at school – They may struggle not only to relate to their fellow classmates, but they may also not develop a strong relationship with their teacher, leaving them at a disadvantage.[ix] [ix-a]

Because every child is different, these are just a few of the ways you may see an executive function challenge manifest in your child.

Now, if you recognize some of these symptoms in your child, what can you do?

How Can I Help My Children with Their Executive Function Challenges?

If you believe your child has weak executive function skills, you may want to have him or her tested as part of a full evaluation for learning and attention issues.

There is no specific “executive function” test, but many of the tests during a full evaluation will focus on the set of skills under this umbrella, including measuring your child’s attention, working memory, inhibitory control, planning skills and problem-solving skills, among others.[x]

Additionally, there are four strategies you can use as a parent to help your child strengthen his or her executive function skills:

Strategy #1: Create Checklists

Children with weak executive function skills may have trouble understanding the incremental steps to completing a task. Many times, this results in children becoming so overwhelmed that they don’t ever start, for example, a book report. [xi] Checklists can make big tasks manageable, allowing a child to focus on each step at hand before moving on to the next. If you can help your children define the steps to complete a more complex task, you’ll help them develop the ability to break down future tasks into manageable chunks.

Strategy #2: Set Time Limits

As you build a checklist with your child, Matt Cruger, PhD, Director of the Child Mind Institute, suggests setting a time limit for each task. [xii] This prevents your child from getting “stuck” for too long one item, and it also will help them practice time management skills so they begin to understand how to plan their time on larger projects.

Strategy #3: Practice with a Planner

Although many schools encourage their students to use planners, many don’t offer specific instruction on how to use them. Especially for children with executive function challenges, using a planner doesn’t come naturally. However, if you and your child’s teacher can establish specific habits early, that repeated practice will help your child to manage increasingly complex assignments and schedules.[xiii] [xiii-a]

Strategy #4: Using Role Play and Games

Role play can also play an important role in developing executive function skills by offering children a safe environment in which to practice. It can also offer a controlled, low-stakes environment in which the tasks placed in front of your child are challenging, but not so difficult as to be completely frustrating. [xiv] For example, you may imagine a social setting with your child, like a birthday party, and present scenarios, then ask your child what he or she would say and do. This presents the opportunity to think through these situations with your gentle guidance.[xv]

Games can also offer children a low-stress environment to develop their abilities. A study published by researchers at Penn State and the National University of Tainan in Taiwan revealed that computer-based games have the potential to improve and facilitate students’ critical thinking and higher-level cognition. [xvi]

Discover more about the types of games your children can play to strengthen their executive function skills.

Strengthening the Executive Function Skills Your Children Need to Excel in School—and Beyond

Because executive function skills are so critical to the day-to-day activities your child encounters in school, weak executive function skills can make it challenging for your child to thrive in the classroom and beyond.

However, if you’re able to spot executive function issues early, you can give your child the chance to strengthen these skills and build a stronger foundation for future success.

As you investigate your options for strengthening your child’s executive function skills, put GoGoBrain on your list.

GoGoBrain is an interactive online learning platform that strengthens seven critical meta-cognitive skills—including executive function skills—to create Super Students from Pre-K to 5th grade. GoGoBrain will help your children develop skills in listening, following directions, self-control, focus, working memory and  visual-spatial reasoning.

To discover how GoGoBrain can help your children become Super Students who thrive in the classroom—and beyond—visit http://GoGoBrain.com.