Understanding executive functions
Jul 24, 2017, 2:48:54 PM CDT Sep 11, 2018, 2:08:22 PM CDT

Understanding executive functions

How you can help your child improve organization, self-regulation, and flexibility

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If you child forgets their homework, can’t stay on task, has trouble being flexible to new plans, or acts impulsively, they may be facing challenges with executive functions.

Executive functions coordinate multiple brain functions to help your child perform complex tasks to achieve a goal. Examples of executive functions in action include:

  • Organization
  • Self-regulation of emotions or impulses
  • Planning
  • Problem-solving
  • Flexibility
  • Starting and finishing tasks

Essentially, executive functions help your child act as the CEO of their own thoughts and actions.

Problems with executive functioning: How to spot symptoms

Very young children, especially under age 6, may not show any symptoms of poor executive functioning since they only engage in fairly simple tasks. As a child matures, problems with executive functions can become more apparent as expectations increase.

“In young children, executive functions are important for self-regulation,” says Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and the Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Health℠. “For instance, in the playroom, they need to be able to share toys and regulate their reactions when someone wants the toy they have. When we look at older kids, problems with executive function are more nuanced.”

Dr. Holland says that older children and teens may begin to struggle in school due to problems with organization, planning, flexibility, and problem-solving. Children may not complete homework on time because they lose assignments or don’t have a plan for completing them. Some children may learn to solve math problems one way but be unable to learn new, more efficient ways to solve problems as expected as they advance in grade level.

Strategies for improving executive functioning

Executive functions are important to help your child build strong relationships and succeed in school and work. If your child has executive functioning issues, you may be able to help them improve these skills with specific, consistent strategies.

The most important strategy is to reinforce positive executive functioning, says Dr. Holland. Whenever your child tries to self-regulate, follow through on a plan, or stay organized, they should be praised for their efforts, even if those efforts are not successful at first.

You can also help your child access tools and resources that can help. These may include:

  • Study skills courses
  • Tutoring or study coaches
  • Daily planners to improve organization
  • Checklists or other reminders to help start and finish tasks
  • Memory games that reinforce and reward working memory

“Children don’t inherently know all the tools and strategies that might help them,” says Dr. Holland. “Teaching children various tools to try can help them figure out what works best for their needs, since everyone is different.”

If your child’s executive functioning issues have larger impacts on their life, such as lost friendships or failing grades, you may want to have them evaluated by a pediatric neuropsychologist. The neuropsychologist can pinpoint specific issues and give your child personalized strategies for improving executive function.

Learn more

If your child has difficulty with executive functioning, talk to a neuropsychologist at Children’s Health.

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