top of page

Executive Functioning-The Basics

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Life is busy. Executive functioning skills help you get things done. According to, “Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things”

Struggles with executive functioning, the management system of the brain, impact home and school. Life in general is effected.

Here is a student friendly video to explain executive functioning. It offers ideas too. Highly recommend ...It's worth the watch time for adults and students alike. What is Executive Function?

Many areas are impacted by executive functioning. This piece will dig into the following five areas.

  1. Paying Attention

  2. Regulating Emotions

  3. Organizing

  4. Planning

  5. Self-monitoring

Parents often wonder if their child has problems with executive functioning. Careful observation will help you decide. Take your notes to your school, pediatrician or primary care doctor. They will advise you of next steps.

How to Spot Problems with Executive Functioning

Warning signs that a child may have problems with executive function include problems with:

  • Planning projects

  • Estimating how much time a project will take to complete

  • Telling stories (verbally or in writing)

  • Memorizing

  • Starting activities or tasks

  • Shifting plans when situations change

  • Focusing only on one task

  • Shutting down when parents or peers don’t act as expected

How To Help

If your child has problems with executive functioning, there are ways to help. Here are some suggestions for four areas commonly impacted. They are from Executive Functioning Interventions:

Intervention Strategies for Developing Attention

  • Teach the use of verbal self-commands (e.g., “Okay, calm down and think about the question.”). · Teach focusing strategies (e.g., checking for critical features and careful listening).

  • Teach the child to use only required materials.

  • Teach strategies that increase inhibition and organization.

  • Encourage the use of date books and special notebooks for organizing papers.

  • Teach the child to stop and think before responding.

  • Teach the child to count to 10 before answering.

  • Teach strategies to increase alertness.

  • Teach the child to be aware of his or her level of alertness.

  • Teach the child to use calming self-statements.

  • Encourage planned breaks so that the child does not have to sustain his or her effort for too long.

Intervention Strategies for Emotion Regulation

  • Outline the difficulties a child has with negative emotions and build strategies to help him/her deal with and overcome these vulnerabilities.

  • Discuss the barriers a child has to changing his/her emotions and develop a plan for overcoming these obstacles.

  • Give the child instructions on how to recognize and label emotions; help him/her identify emotional reactions that are specific to particular contexts.

  • Provide training that enables a child to identify the physical effect of emotions. Skills training in deep breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques may help alleviate some of the physical symptoms of negative emotions, especially anxiety.

  • Help the child develop strategies to tolerate rather than avoid distress. If a child is able to fully experience and develop an awareness of his/her emotions, he/she can learn to experience distress without judgment and then to let go. Avoidance behaviors may make the situation worse and become harmful over time.

  • Teach a child the technique for regulating negative emotions of expressing the opposite emotions. For example, if a child is feeling sad, he/she would try to feel the opposite emotion, happy. ·

  • Provide strategies that will help a child be more aware of and increase the number of positive events in his/her life. These strategies may include providing techniques on how to avoid giving up, being more mindful of positive events, and building positive relationships with others

Intervention Strategies for Organization

  • The teacher should provide the students with instruction about strategies for specific instructional areas (e.g. decoding, reading comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, writing, math problem solving, and science). There are two basic steps:

  • Teachers should tell students that

1) a plan is a method for how to do something that involves thinking about the activity and outcome, and

2) a plan requires a person to: - Think: What do I want to do? What is my goal? - Do: Act. Begin to complete the task. - Monitor: Is it working? Am I getting what I wanted? - Modify: Do I need to modify my plan? - Verify: Am I finished with the task?

  • Teachers should explicitly encourage students to accomplish several things when doing schoolwork: - Discover and use strategies. - Monitor their performance. - Generalize their use of strategies. - Be aware of the importance of strategies. - Achieve self-regulated strategy use. - Become thoughtful, planful, and evaluative.

Intervention Strategies for Planning

  • Teach children about plans and strategy use.

  • Discuss the importance of planning in class and how it helps students organize themselves so that they can be more successful and finish on time.

  • Encourage children to develop, use, and evaluate their own strategies.

  • Encourage verbalization of ideas and strategies.

  • Explain why some methods work better than others.

  • Ask questions related to planning, such as: - "How did you do the task?” - "Did you make a plan before you started the task?” - “What did you do last time? Did it work?” - "Why did you do it that way?” - “These are hard. Is there a way to make them easier?” - “Is there a better way or another way to do this?” - “What strategy worked for you?” - “Do you think you will do anything differently next time?” - "How can you check your work to see if it is right?”

Intervention Strategies for Self-Monitoring

  • Teach the child to identify a goal, predict performance, and outline possible strategies based on imagined outcomes. Explain to the child how to monitor behavior and assess performance in order to develop new strategies if desired outcomes are not met.

  • Provide training in self-management and self-monitoring skills. The goal is to help a child develop strategies for monitoring his/her own behavior and performance. One technique is to provide a routine checklist that the child can fill out to periodically monitor behavior. A sample checklist question is, "Am I listening?" The checklist can include questions (e.g., "Have I defined my topic?" or "Have I completed the outline?") that relate to task-specific performance metrics.

  • Check in regularly on a child’s progress to ensure that a task is being completed. This can serve as a way to model self-regulation.

  • Teach the child cues to help determine when he/she is off track on a task.

  • Include a plan to gradually transfer responsibility for cueing behavior to the child. Planning prevents the child from relying too heavily on external support.

  • Use videotaped feedback to allow the child to view his/her behavior and develop new strategies.

  • Provide a model of desired behaviors for the child to follow.

  • Reward the child several times a day, at home and at school to engage him/her and to reinforce positive behaviors. Examples of good rewards include high energy, attention-getting rewards such as computer games, and desirable activities. Increase the frequency or magnitude of rewards as positive behaviors increase. A token system can be used to promote and reward positive behaviors. Transition into teaching the child to self-reward when a goal is met in order to motivate self-monitoring.

Remember, there are strategies to help students become successful throughout their lives. It is important to recognize the need and start implementation. Ask for expert help and support.

“Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.” -Saadi


Does Your Child Need Support with

Reading, Writing, Or Math?

The Joy of Learning provides engaging, evidence based instruction, in reading, writing, and math, for students with diverse learning styles, taught by highly qualified learning specialists.

We offer highly personalized 1-1 instruction both in person and virtually. Our in- person locations are the Boulder, Denver, and Fort Collins CO areas, the East SF Bay area, Jackson Hole Wyoming, and Seattle.

Interested to Learn More? Book a Free Consultation Here, or visit our homepage.You can also sign up for our mailing list to receive valuable tips about supporting your unique learner.

1,192 views0 comments


bottom of page