Executive functions are like the conductor of the mind’s orchestra. They cue, direct and conduct the brain to use executive skills to perform everyday tasks. Planning, organizing, focusing and inhibiting are examples of executive skills that affect learning and behavior in children and adolescents. Although children are not born with these skills, they are born with the potential to develop them.
Children who have an executive function weakness, regardless of how intelligent they are, may struggle to complete academic work. They may lose or forget important class materials, have difficulty organizing their thoughts when writing and struggle with time management. In order to develop an area of weakness, it is important to focus on acquiring the executive skills needed to perform a specific task.
There are many activities that will help children of all ages develop executive skills. According to The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, children build their skills through engagement in meaningful social interactions and enjoyable activities. Schoolwork, games and creative play will help children of all ages integrate attention, working memory and self-control—skills that are typically associated with executive function.
Although younger children will need more support, children will be able to practice these skills in different ways. Simple imitation games can help toddlers with turn taking and self-control. Games that require players to remember and match cards are great at exercising working memory and cognitive flexibility. Physical games, such as freeze dance and musical chairs, require attention and inhibition. Even puzzles and brain teasers will increase problem-solving skills.
As children continue to develop, the complexity of activities will develop as well. Goal setting, planning and monitoring will be necessary
to acquire self-regulation. Maintaining a calendar, reducing distractions and breaking projects down into manageable steps will increase the ability to operate independently and organize tasks. Activities, such as yoga and meditation, have been proven to develop sustained attention. Music and theater draw heavily on working memory and time management. And, as long as time limits are established and observed, computer games will challenge attention and inhibition.
In addition to these basic activities, there are many specialists and professionals that can offer strategies and support for children with executive function weaknesses. If you suspect that your child has an executive function weakness, talk to their teacher for further clarification and ask if the school psychologist can observe your child in the classroom. If appropriate, request that your child be tested by a school psychologist or seek an outside evaluation by a neuropsychologist. Together as a team you can develop an intervention plan that will focus on skills acquisition, increasing academic success.
Layla Lindau is the director of special education at the Vincent Smith School in Port Washington, which is well-known for its individualized program for students with ADD, ADHD and learning disabilities. Visit www.vincentsmithschool.org to learn more.