Improving executive function skills: a few useful tips

Executive functions are skills employed in making decisions and carrying them out. They help us set priorities, regulate our thoughts, impulses and actions, and adapt our behaviour to our goals, bearing in mind past experiences and information we get from the environment. Different authors list different skills under the executive function umbrella, but mostly we talk about mental (cognitive) flexibility, organization, planning, focus, working memory, self-awareness and self-control.

Why are these skills so important?

Children with executive dysfunction experience difficulties figuring out how to get started on a task, become easily distracted, have trouble staying focused, tend to rush through their homework or leave it half-done, find it hard to change a course of action when things are not working out as planned, and are often lost for words when trying to explain something or cannot remember their own line of thought when interrupted.

Therefore, the best time to start working on executive functions is before a child starts school, because it is exactly these skills that ensure a pupil will know how to conduct herself during class, not disturb the lecture, sit still and pay attention, avoid procrastination and voluntarily engage in completing homework.

An unprepared child will feel out of place, act out, get lower grades and generally associate school with uneasiness and fear.

By the same token, a child with well developed executive function skills will be praised by his teacher and feel up to the academic challenge. This will increase his self-esteem and affect positively his willingness to cooperate, follow instructions and carry out assignments.

Actually, there are numerous scientific studies which indicate that mastery over executive function skills at the (pre)school age serve as a better personal and professional success predictor than an IQ quotient.

sucker-1471865-640x480Probably the most famous is the late 60’s Stanford University’s seminal Marshmallow test, which showed that kids who manage to fight temptations as preschoolers perform significantly better academically later on and make much healthier lifestyle choices (represented in lower likelihood of obesity and substance abuse) as adults.

But, what a follow-up on the Marshmallow test, a study conducted at the University of Rochester, showed as well, was that the self-control abilities also depend notably on the environment and social influences. Which basically means that it is up to us, parents and caregivers, to help our children exercise and improve their executive function skills.

A few ideas for intervention

child-playing-1515545-640x480The most basic support we can provide for proper development of these skills is to ensure stable and nurturing environment where children would feel safe and be stimulated to play, explore and create.

We also need to nourish our relationship with our kids, be supportive and serve as an example of all those fine attributes we want to see in our children. Teach them how to manage emotions.

  • Explain yourself to your child, express your own anxiety, worry or anger through words rather than actions.
  •  Point out those moments when you feel like exploding but decide to calm down instead.
  • Remind them that yelling and hitting are not proper ways to channel anger and fear.
  • Let them explain themselves, talk their way out of difficult feelings.
  • Help them visualize a safe place they can run to when big emotions start flooding in.
  • Praise them when they manage to control their temper and figure out solutions to their frustration all alone.

In order to improve their focus and working memory, tell them stories. Without the assistance of images presented in books, children need to pay attention to the storyline and keep track of details to help make sense of the characters and their actions.

kids building a sand castle 2Provide ample opportunities for play to ensure social interaction, physical exercise and a fertile ground for imagination to bloom. And, while structured, close-ended play, like puzzles and board games, is essential for learning specific skills, there’s nothing like open-ended, unstructured play to boost each and every one of executive functions. Just think how much planning, organizing, problem solving and establishing effective means of communication is required to build a simple sand castle with a group of friends. Getting outdoors and/or involving children of different ages in the game is sweepingly beneficial. Going hiking or engaging in group sports teaches children to follow directions, pay attention, consider other people’s actions and emotions, as well as identify their own strengths and weaknesses. I already wrote about the importance of physical exercise for proper development, but a heap of research has also been published on crucial impact of physical activity and fitness on executive function skills. I list some of those articles at the end of this post.

Finally, help your kids get organized. Offer them assistance in managing space and time more efficiently:

  1. Establish routines. Predictability helps calm down anxiety and build confidence. A nice way of ensuring compliance with an established routine is, first of all, discussing it with your kid and explaining the importance of different tasks. Make the list of activities together and create a visual organizer by taking photos or drawing each activity and ordering them properly on a sheet of paper. Or try using an already available daily schedule.
  2. Break complex tasks into smaller chunks. If you want your child to pick up his room, help him get started by asking what he thinks should be taken care of first. Come up with a series of steps together and delegate as much authority as your child can take.
  3. Set time limits. This applies to every job that needs to be done, from the very simple ones as brushing teeth (we’ve got a life-saving bathroom hour-glass calibrated to three minutes, which makes the whole bedtime routine infinitely more manageable) to more complex activities such as a complicated school project. Just keep it realistic. Your 4 year old kid probably cannot put away all his toys in 5 minutes. Bear in mind that they are still to acquire the skills of organizing and planning and what may be entirely obvious to you quite possibly looks as a puzzle yet to be solved to your little one.
  4. Make checklists. It’s what you get by putting the 2. and 3. together. This is actually my favourite intervention, because it directly engages the executive functions and works towards increasing independence. Let you child come up with the list by figuring out what needs to be done, making a plan how to execute it, breaking complicated tasks into a series of steps, allocating time required for each step and adjusting the list if needed. Checklists provide a rather convenient practice for setting goals, analyzing issues and tracking progress.
  5. Teach them to keep places where they play and/or study tidy. Help them organize their space according to their needs and set rules about keeping them in order.

Helpful resources

There is so much more that can be said on proper development of executive function skills.

For an age-appropriate guide on what to expect and how to get involved, be sure to check out this Harvard University publication. Also, take a look at this medical study on effectiveness of different interventions. Here is a link to some interesting ideas and easy-to-use materials for teaching EF skills.

Relevant publications on the relationship between physical exercises and EF skills

Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function

Aerobic fitness and cognitive development: Event-related brain potential and task performance indices of executive control in preadolescent children

Aerobic fitness and executive control of relational memory in preadolescent children

The impacts of coordinative exercise on executive function in kindergarten children: an ERP study

Acute exercise facilitates brain function and cognition in children who need it most: an ERP study of individual differences in inhibitory control capacity

Impact of acute aerobic exercise and cardiorespiratory fitness on visuospatial attention performance and serum BDNF levels

An introduction to the relation of physical activity to cognitive and brain health, and scholastic achievement

Physical activity: measurement and behavioral patterns in children and youth

The importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness for cognitive control and memory in children

Available online tests

You can find different EF test online, depending on which skills you would like to assess:

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