Strategies to Support Executive Functioning in Children

Written by Georgia Ostler, Occupational Therapist

Have you ever accidentally poured juice into your cereal, or worn your gym tights back to front, only to realise during your workout? These are examples of a lapse in executive functioning! So, what is executive functioning? Executive function skills are essential for our day-to-day activities. We aren’t born with these skills but rather develop them as we grow. Therefore, it is fundamental that we provide children and adolescents with the opportunities to develop these skills.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
Executive function depends on three types of brain function:

Working Memory – This governs our ability to retain and manipulate information for short periods of time and is important for reasoning and guiding decision-making and behaviour.

Mental Flexibility – This helps us to shift or sustain attention to respond appropriately to circumstance or demands.

Self-control / inhibitory control – This enables us to prioritise tasks and control impulsive actions, behaviours or responses.

What does it look like if my child has difficulties with executive functioning?

Difficulties with executive functioning can impact people in different ways. Some of these characteristics include having difficulty:

  • Remembering information, which they have just been told or read
  • Following instructions or directions (including sequences of steps)
  • Transitioning between tasks
  • Sitting still
  • Initiating, completing, or prioritising tasks
  • Regulating emotions
  • Keeping track of belongings
  • Time management
  • Organisation (for example, having a messy desk and backpack)
  • Word and idea generation
  • Concept formation.
How can we support children to develop executive function skills?

Reduce Stress

Stress has many negative impacts, including disturbed sleep, issues with digestion, weakened immune system, depression and more. Stress can impact the brain regions responsible for regulation, self-control, and emotion, which may inhibit the development of executive function skills. Therefore, it is essential to consider causes of stress for our children and reduce this as best we can.

Establish Routines

Establishing routines provides an opportunity to promote the development of executive function skills. Visual charts, calendars, alarms, lists, and planners help support attention and sequencing of multi-step tasks and routines, such as dressing and tying shoelaces. If it takes a child a significant amount of time to complete their routine, try and make it into a game to see who can complete their routine the fastest.

However, it is important to note that executive functioning is also critical for independence in daily routines. If we are providing a strict routine with limited flexibility, we will inhibit the ability for development of these skills. So where possible, encourage your child to contribute to the planning of these tasks and routines.

Model Appropriate Social Behaviours
Children learn behaviours through observing them. If a child observes appropriate social behaviours, they are more likely to adopt the executive function skills relating to these behaviours.

Promote participation in a diverse range of activities
Promoting participation in team sports, group play, and extra-curricular activities encourages creative play and social interaction. These environments and activities teach children how to cope with stress and problem solve tricky situations. Over time, they will begin to learn how to direct and modulate their actions without the support of an adult.

Practice, Practice, Practice!
Repetitive engagement in activities is the best way to effectively develop these skills.

Fun activities that promote executive function skill development:
  • Rubik’s Cube
  • Cooking
  • Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com
  • Puzzles
  • Chess
  • Jenga
  • Craft
  • Reading (I Spy, Where’s Wally)
  • Hide and seek
  • Musical instruments
  • UNO
  • Go Fish
  • Board Games
  • Memory Cards
  • Word Finder
  • Scrabble.

If you feel that your child needs some additional support to develop their executive functioning, come and have a chat with one of our friendly Occupational Therapists. Find out more at steppingstonesforchildren.com.au.

REFERENCES:
Brown, Thomas E. (2005). Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults (pp
20–58). New Haven, CT, Yale University Press Health and Wellness.
Beck, C. (2020, May 28). Engaging executive functioning activities. The OT Toolbox. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.theottoolbox.com/engaging-executive-functioning-activities/
Executive Function & Self-regulation. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2020, March 24). Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
Copyright Stepping Stones Therapy for Children 2023

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