Executive Functioning

Behavior & Development • Aug 20, 2019

Executive Functioning & Your Child’s School Performance

The new school year is approaching. You may be ready to send your child back to school, but at the same time, dreading the struggle of getting him to do his homework, figuring out where those missing assignments went or getting him out the door in the morning. Sound familiar? Allow me to explain a concept called executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning—it sounds like a term used in business, maybe like a company executive who is responsible for decision making or creating plans for company growth. While executive functioning isn’t exactly a business term, it is a set of “executive” or “boss” skills that you are probably more familiar with than you think.

Ultimately, executive functioning is a set of thinking skills that help someone complete tasks efficiently. Some executive functions include:

Executive function Description

“The ability to…”:

Inhibition think before you act and stop yourself from saying or doing something.
Working memory hold information in mind while performing complex tasks.
Flexibility switch attention to something else or revise plans in the face of obstacles.
Initiation get started on a task.
Planning think a few steps ahead and create an effective plan.
Organization create a system to keep track of information or materials.


Try answering these questions.  

Does your child tend to:

  • Blurt out answers before considering the appropriateness of their response?
  • Not follow through with a set of tasks?
  • Have difficulty adapting to changes in plans or routines?
  • Put off starting homework until the last minute?
  • Become overwhelmed by big projects?
  • Have a disorganized desk, backpack or room?

Every child has difficulties in these areas sometimes. But if you found yourself thinking that these statements describe your child’s behavior more often than not, you may have just found a term to help describe these behaviors: Executive Functioning!


Who tends to struggle with executive functioning?

Executive functioning is controlled by the brain’s connections with the prefrontal cortex, which is the part right behind your forehead. It can be affected in a variety of developmental and medical conditions, including ADHD, autism, brain injury, epilepsy, cancer and treatment, and cerebral palsy.


Why are executive functions important?

Executive functions support our ability to learn, be successful in school and get things done at home, to name a few. Succeeding at these tasks can boost a child’s confidence. On the other hand, difficulties with these tasks can lead to emotional problems, such as poor self-esteem.


What is the involvement of executive functions in academic performance?

Here are some examples of how executive functioning affects our children’s learning and performance in school:

  • Reading
    • Working memory – helps with comprehension by keeping in mind information that has already been read and allows for new information to be taken in
    • Initiation – helps to get started on a long or tricky reading assignment
  • Math
    • Inhibition – helps to ensure one slows down to read the signs, adds units, simplifies fractions, or checks work
    • Flexibility – helps to effectively switch between different types of problems, or to complete problems that are set up in a different way than the initial examples
  • Writing
    • Planning – helps to create a plan for writing, like deciding on the writing topic, identifying supportive points, and ensuring the pieces fit together to create a whole
    • Organization – helps to organize information in a logical or effective order


How can you help your child with executive functioning difficulties?

So you have figured out that your child may struggle with executive functioning… What now? Fortunately, there are ways you can help her. You can think of it like lending your child your prefrontal cortex and executive functioning skills!

  • Inhibition – If your child approaches his work too quickly and makes mistakes, prompt him to stop, re-assess the problem (and maybe explain out loud what the question is asking), respond, and then check his answer before moving on.
  • Working memory – If your child gets off track or cannot seem to finish her morning routine before the bus comes, consider writing a list or drawing pictures of the steps to her morning routine. Place this list(s) in a place she can easily find it (e.g., bathroom mirror, refrigerator, bedroom door). Set timers to keep her on pace.
  • Flexibility – Busy schedules during the school year are likely to change at some point, such as cancelled games or added doctor appointments, which can upset kids who struggle with flexibility. To the best of your ability, let your child know about scheduled or anticipated changes as early as possible. This allows him time to adapt, which can help relieve some anxiety.
  • Initiation – If your child has difficulty getting started on homework, create structure around after-school time.  Set a homework start time, schedule in breaks so that the task does not seem as daunting, and allow for motivators, such as videogame or internet time, only after homework is complete.
  • Planning – If your child has a large project and is having trouble figuring out where to start, sit down with her and identify the end goal of the project, the steps necessary to reach the goal, and the order the steps must be in to effectively reach the final product.
  • Organization – Does your child lose his permission slips or forget homework at school? Create an organization system, such as color-coded folders to separate subjects or incomplete vs complete homework and teach him to create “to-do” lists.

Over time, you can gradually fade these supports as your child learns to use these strategies on her own!