Executive Functions

You may have read or heard about executive functioning in your child's autism assessment report, in ADHD resources, or in reading about how children's brains develop as they grow up.

While we often hear about executive functioning as necessary for completing school tasks, it is also used in nearly every task that we complete in our daily lives.


What is Executive Functioning?

In simplest terms, Executive Function means the ability to get stuff done (writing a story, getting yourself ready for school, or cleaning a room, etc.). It can be remembered in terms of to “execute​” a complex task through to completion.


The brain must do a lot of things in order to accomplish a task or goal. However, as adults we sometimes take for granted how long it has taken us to develop our own executive skills, leaving us frustrated about how difficult it is for kids to complete given tasks.


To help remind us, think about everything that you did to get ready for work/outings today. You had the end goal in mind, knew the things that needed to be done, was able to order these appropriately, and completed them within a timeframe. You may think: 'shower, brushed teeth, coffee, dressed, got in the car' - for parents with little ones to get ready, there will have been many more steps in your routine! But even with these five steps, each one has steps within it; for example 'coffee' involves a series of its own steps to prepare, make, and consume the coffee.


As adults, these steps and sub-steps are usually easy enough for us to complete and that's because our brains continually improved the required executive functions until we were well into our 20's. Executive functions take place in the prefrontal cortex of our brains (the large front section, behind your forehead). As our brains develop from the back first, progressively to the front, the prefrontal cortex where executive functions take place, is the last area of the brain to mature.


Signs that your child may be struggling with executive functioning:

While there can be other factors also at play (e.g. attention, distractability, motivation, sensory needs, behaviours), if your child struggles with these below, their executive functioning may not be strong. Please keep in mind what is reasonable to expect for your child's age.

  • Difficulty managing homework – forgetting to do it or hand it in, not understanding what is expected, losing required materials, or having difficulty starting.

  • Poor organisation - school tub, desk at home, backpack, and/or bedroom has no organisation.

  • Difficulty managing time - odd perception of time, often late, not able to watch the clock and work to a time limit.

  • Missing details - not reading instructions carefully, missing key parts of the instruction given by teachers, making errors in school work even know they have the knowledge.

  • Not being prepared - not having what they need to class, forgetting items to pack, not getting ready to leave the house.

  • Not asking for help - asking for help isn't used by them as a way to solve the problem, doesn't think of the teacher as a resource for help, sits and does nothing instead.

  • Not starting or doing tasks - largely due to being overwhelmed by the size of the task, feeling stressed or worried, procrastinating, or refusing to do homework.

  • Poor focus - finding it difficult to stay focused on only one thing, not staying on task long enough to finish it.

  • Difficulty putting it in writing - having trouble getting thoughts and ideas from their mind on to the paper, disorganised written stories, or difficulty explaining what they meant.



Ways to help kids who struggle with Executive Functions


Foundations – Adequate restful sleep, regular and balanced meals (carbs, protein, fruit), physical activity - ideally outside.


Routines – Help support their developing executive functions by having routines for their tasks. I.e. work with the child to develop a morning routine, a homework routine, a leaving the house routine, etc. These should be visual and prompt them only as much as needed.


Emotion regulation – Understand your child's emotions and help them develop tools for regulating their emotions. The underlying message should always be that emotions are ok and we can learn ways to manage them.


Visual reminders – Use stickers, pictures, notes, lists etc as reminders of what needs to be done and the steps involved. E.g. a sticker on their lunch box reminding them to pack their reader after lunch.


Chunk – Chunking assignments or other tasks down into smaller pieces. This way their mind only has to focus on one smaller and manageable task at a time.


Plan – Make plans for everything and share these with your kids. Also encourage them to help you make the plans and also their own plans. E.g. "So we have three hours at home before we need to leave, what is your plan for what to do?" or "I see you have four things to do tonight for homework, lets make a plan for how you can get it all done - which do you want to do first?"


Visual imers – For children that can understand the passing of time, use visual timers and prompt them to check it to see how much time they have left. Some children like the fancy sensory oil timers while many older children are fine with simply being told "when the big hand gets to the six" on the wall clock. Ensure that the child can see the passing of time - having an alarm go off on your phone won't provide this.


Mindfulness – If your child is interested in any forms of mindfulness (drawing, colouring, nature walks, sitting at the beach, mindfulness apps, etc) these are endlessly helpful.



If you wish to discuss any of this further, please speak with your child's treating psychologist or teacher.