7 Ways to Improve Executive Functioning
First off, let’s understand what Executive Functioning is and why it’s important. Executive functioning is your brains ability to activate, organize, integrate, and manage functions. It assists in short and long term memory functions, as well as being able to make real-time decisions to evaluate and adjust to meet a desired outcome.
There are a total of 8 executive function skills:
- Impulse Control
- Emotional Control
- Flexible Thinking
- Working Memory
- Self Monitoring
- Planning & Prioritizing
- Task Initiation
Whew! That’s a hefty list. As you can tell these skills are important as children look to learn and grow into self-reliant individuals. If there is a breakdown or a lag in any of these areas, a child in school can really suffer. Grades may be poor as they forget to hand in assignments or can’t remember what assignments need to be completed. They can become easily frustrated and act out as they are emotionally overwhelmed. They may be very ridged and inflexible to task transitions, and unexpected events.
Before we continue: take a second at in the comments below tell me which of these skills your child struggles with.
You may be thinking, yes. That’s my child. Now what? Are they destined to never learn these skills?
Well, the answer is no! They will develop these skills in time and with your help. Let’s remember a few key points:
- The area of the brain where executive function skills develop doesn’t stop even growing until your child is in their mid-twenties. Yep!
- Your child’s physical age has nothing to do with their current skill sets age. It is common for special needs children to experience a delay of these skills of 2-4 years behind their neuro-typical peers. That means a child who 13 may only have the executive function skills of someone who is 9. And this age to skill difference compounds at different ages. A child who is 9 may only be at an age 5 or 6.
This is why school settings often don’t reflect your child’s intelligence or assists in helping them develop these skills. Teachers are often forced to teach a curriculum a certain way and on a certain timeline (which I find counter intuitive to how children learn and arbitrary in the grand scheme of life. But I digress).
That doesn’t mean that you can’t help your child improve their executive functioning skills. What I love about our bodies, and especially the brain, is that it is elastic. We continue to build new neural networks in our brain that allow us to grasp new concepts and skills. That means you can exercise your brain for improved skills. In fact, I have found through tasks, games, and simple exercises all of these areas can and do improve.
Let’s also remember that in the interim while you are helping your child build and improve these skills, it’s important to set up systems and routines that will act as physical and visual coping methods. What’s wonderful about recognizing this is that these coping methods also act as exercises that overtime help develop the skills desired.
Did you know that engaging in exercises such as having your child place your left hand on your right knee can improve emotional grounding and impulse control? Yepper. Exercises that focus on working the right, left, upper & lower parts of your brain are key to emotional grounding and impulse control. Other exercises that we have used are windmills, marching, skipping, and walking toe to toe while clapping your hands and raising/lowering your arms.
Other games can help with working memory. For example, the classic game memory. Or take a tray and place several random objects. Then allow your child to study the objects for up to 30 seconds. Then have your child close theirs eyes while you remove an item. Have them open their eyes and ask them which item was removed. As memory improves increase the number of items and/or reduce the amount of time they have to study the objects.
This game can also be played another way. Have the child study the items for up to 30 seconds. Then remove the tray out of sight or cover the items with a cloth. Ask you child about the objects. Such as, what color was the ball? Was the Lego figure a boy or a girl? What shape was the wooden block? Etc.
We also use chants, jingles, and songs to help with memory. For example; My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Pizzas. This is how I remember the order of the planets, where the first letter of each word stood for a planet. Of course, this is when Pluto was still considered a planet. Other jingles we have uses are Never East Soggy Waffles for the order of the directions North, East, South, West. Any information that your child struggles with can be unified by creating a fun way to remember and an association with something else.
There are many games that help with Planning and Organizing. A perfect example is Lego kits, baking or cooking with a recipe, and craft kits. These pre-made activities allows your child to practice gathering supplies, organizing the items they will need, and following step-by-step instructions that eventually will lead to them being able to select a desired goal and reverse engineer what they need to get there.
This also leads me to how we communicate with our children when they are approaching tasks. We often tell our children what needs to be done. Instead, get in the habit of asking them what needs to be done and the next steps to achieve it. I use phrases like, “we are getting ready to leave. What items do we need?” This type of questioning allows your child time to practice thinking about all the items and steps they need to achieve the desired outcome.
Lastly, how can you help your child be better organized? In the last episode of Thriv’n I talked about Visual Guides. This one really lends to self organization and planning skills in the long run.
If you want your child to be more organized than you need to be more organized too. We group and label as much as we can, giving everything a home and clearing out the clutter. It’s easier to being organized when you have less stuff that needs to be organized.
The second key to learning organization is practicing. Spend time playing games of grouping like items together. Lets put all the kids books here, all the board games go here, etc. It doesn’t matter what items you having them group together. Put all the red items here, the dogs in this pile, all the words that begin with the letter “B”. It about them looking at a pile of jumbled items and practicing how to organize them. Plus, this can help you to organize spaces throughout your home.
Well, there you have it., 7 ways to improve executive functioning. If you have tip or an idea that you have used to help your child improve their executive functioning post in the comments below.