Updated: Apr 6
Executive functioning is a set of neurologically-based skills involving cognition and higher-order processing, that are located in the Frontal Lobe of the brain. Since the brain develops back to front, the frontal lobe is last to mature. This maturity may not even take place up until the thirties. These skills pull together our accumulated knowledge with the ability to emotionally self-regulate, plan, initiate, use working memory, organize, impulse control, process, focus, etc. These skills are important for so many of our daily activities, like interacting with others and organizing and performing our daily activities appropriately.
Developing executive functioning requires practice in the best of circumstances, and is a lifelong process. But, for children with some cognitive disorders, like ADHD, practicing executive functioning becomes crucial.
If you’re wondering “How can I help my child with executive functioning?”, we’re here to help. Below we’ve compiled a number of activities that you can do with your child to develop the skills they’ll need for the rest of their lives.
WHAT IS EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING?
We’ve already mentioned that executive functioning is a set of skills that help everyone - children and adults alike - to organize tasks, focus, and use previously collected information, etc., as mentioned above.
That’s a little vague, of course. Since it is a formal term in neuropsychology, it seems appropriate to provide a formal definition of executive functioning here:
Executive functions are a set of processes that have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for neurologically-based skills that involve mental control and self-regulation.
Executive functioning can be generally grouped into five to 7 functions - self and impulse control, working memory, time management, planning and organization, problem-solving, attention, time management, and effort, emotional self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility.
Self- and Impulse-Control: through this control, we are able to limit distractions, focus, and manage our responses.
Working memory: this is where we temporarily hold and manipulate information. Working memory searches and manipulates information that we can use together to develop new and creative solutions to the problems in front of us. This information can in turn be connected to more long-term memory.
Time Management: The ability to initiate, activate, prioritize, and schedule appropriately to accomplish a task in the most efficient and timely manner.
Effort: This is the ability to manage time and pay attention. Difficulties here can affect processing speed which could dramatically affect schoolwork, reading, math, etc.
Cognitive Flexibility: the ability to modify how we approach problems or see other perspectives is facilitated by this skill.
Emotional Self Regulation: the ability to understand and manage your emotions to appropriately respond.
With these definitions, it should be no surprise that children need opportunities to learn and practice using these skills.
EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING ACTIVITIES FOR CHILDREN
Training and exercising self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility can start with infants and continues through middle school and even into adulthood.
Executive Functioning Activities for Infants
Starting at an early age, children experience their world through their five senses. They may not be able to verbally communicate, but they can touch, taste, smell, and hear what is going on around them.
Bringing sensory pay into their world, and adding words to what they are experiencing - “That feels soft!” or “That’s sticky!” - lets them connect words with these experiences. For children with sensory processing disorders, autism, or other neurodevelopmental disorders, sensory play may be overwhelming. Consider conducting the play away from other external stimuli to minimize potential overload.
Mirroring what mommy and daddy do engage working memory and self-control. Mimicking the actions requires watching, paying attention, waiting until the action is done, and then repeating it by remembering and recalling. Children with conditions like ADHD may have impulse-control challenges that make waiting until the action is completely difficult. These games allow children to practice that self-control along with the other executive function skills.
Rhymes with actions encourage self-control. Your child will have to wait for the exciting and anticipated actions.
Hide and Seek and object
Hiding an object under one of three pillows, cups, etc. engages their working memory
Read often to your child
Again your child will have to watch and wait demonstrating impulse control, working memory, etc.
Executive Functioning Activities for Toddlers
Age Appropriate Chores
Participating in chores helps children feel a sense of accomplishment. Moreover, chores can help them practice their executive functioning skills.
Chores require listening to and executing a set of instructions, engaging working memory and stored information. For instance, “Grab a spoon and stir the dough” requires the child to remember two steps, their order, and also to recall where the spoons are stored.
For children with neurological disorders, you’ll want to start with a short instruction set, perhaps just a single item like “Pull all the socks out of the laundry basket”. Later, add an additional instruction - “Pull all of the socks out of the laundry basket and put like socks together.” Build on the instruction set over time instead of expecting your child to master multi-step tasks all at once.
Puzzles require focus, working memory, spatial recognition, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. Puzzles take time and patience, so be sure to start with large, simple puzzles with few pieces.
Clapping games and Music with Movement:
Requires attention, working memory, impulse control, etc.
Is a great family way to practice executive functioning skills such as impulse control, attention, problem-solving, etc.
Reading, Coloring, Drawing:
Encourages your child to practice effort, attention, planning, etc.
Executive Functioning Activities for Grade Schoolers
Roleplay can be especially important for children with neurological disorders, such as autism. But this kind of play can benefit all children who are exercising their executive functioning skills.
Pretending to be a teacher or a caretaker, a doctor or a parent encourages children to pull in their memories of experiences they have had with these roles and act out the actions these individuals take. By placing themselves in the shoes of others, children have an opportunity to experience and practice empathy, an especially important activity for those on the spectrum.
Crafting a new item from various parts requires children to plan, problem-solve, organize their actions, and practice self-control. Creating a picture or an object with yarn, paint, felt, glue, and so on draws on the child’s creativity while requiring them to think through what the end product will look like.
It can be challenging for children with ADH to stay focused on the end goal, while those with other executive function challenges may have a hard time thinking through the steps required to bring their vision to life. Guide your child in planning the steps needed to create their craft.
Executive Functioning Activities for Middle Schoolers
Strategy games are an excellent way to practice executive functioning skills, as it requires nearly every element of those skills to be effective. These games require planning, self-control, evaluation, working memory, flexibility, and attention while also involving delayed gratification.
Games like Battleship, checkers, and even tic-tac-toe allow children to practice these skills.
Home Chores and Projects
Just like doing chores at earlier stages, home projects and more advanced chores let children of varying abilities engage their executive functioning skills, like planning, working memory, and attention. Putting away the dishes requires children to recognize objects and place them where they belong. Baking a cake requires following instructions, in order, and then monitoring baking progress. Plus, children gain a level of confidence in their abilities and a sense of accomplishment as they complete tasks and realize the fruits of their labor.
Sports, 3-D puzzles, swimming, martial arts, chores, science activities, strategy games, etc. are many more ways to promote executive functioning skills while having fun.
Since children with ADHD have great difficulty perceiving time, feeling time, and estimating time accurately It is important to address this difficulty comprehending the passing of time. Estimate the length of time it will take to complete an activity, practice, or chore. Using a visual or another type of timer at the start of each activity with a planned estimate of how long the task or activity will take can help your child feel time. It is important to help develop what time passing feels like. You can use the timer to create how much time before break time, pacing yourself and using time wisely, etc.