When kids head back to school, we often think about the classes they will take and the information they will learn; for example, math, science, and history. It’s also important to think about other skills that are required for learning and accomplishing tasks in daily life. “Executive functioning” is a term used to describe skills such as planning, staying on task, organizing, and monitoring if you are doing a task correctly. On your child’s report card, these are often called “learning skills”. Executive functioning skills are important for success in school, on the job, and in everyday life. With the support of caregivers and teachers, children are developing these skills throughout their lives.

Pre-School/Kindergarten

Planning:

  • Is able to follow a routine or plan developed by someone else (with an example or demonstration)

Controlling Attention/ Staying on task:

  • Can sit through “circle time” (15-20 minutes)
  • Can listen to one or two stories in a sitting

Organization

  • Hangs up coat in appropriate place (may need reminder)
  • Puts toys in proper locations (with reminders)

Grade 1-3

Planning:

  • Can carry out 2-3 step projects that they create (e.g., art, building with blocks)
  • Can do 2-3 step homework assignments with adult support (e.g., reading response)

Controlling Attention/ Staying on task:

  • Can sit through “circle time” (15-20 minutes)
  • Can listen to one or two stories in a sitting

Organization

  • Does not lose permission slips, notices from school
  • Puts sports equipment, coats, boots, backpack in proper locations (may need reminder)

Grade 6-8

Planning:

  • Can carry out long term projects for school with little support from adults
  • Can make good decisions with time (e.g., come home from school to finish project due tomorrow rather than play with friends).

Controlling Attention/ Staying on task:

  • Can spend 60 or more minutes on homework (may need breaks)

Organization

  • Does not lose sports equipment/personal electronics
  • Can organize notebooks and handouts as needed for school

Children with executive functioning difficulties often have trouble getting started and getting things done at school and at home. They often get distracted or stop a task partway through; they may forget they have homework, leave materials at school or forget to turn in completed work. Teenagers may struggle with longer-term projects, breaking assignments down and prioritizing what needs to be done first. They may approach larger assignments in a haphazard manner. The following strategies can help children plan, organize, stay focused, and complete tasks:

  • Do homework in a regular location that is quiet and has few distractions. Create a homework routine or plan including when to start, how many breaks to take, and what to work on.
  • Adults can think aloud to help children learn strategies to manage their attention – “It seems you are having difficulty focusing, I think it might be easier to focus if you take a quick walk/ put your phone away for 20 minutes”.
  • Instead of verbal reminders, consider using checklists to cue your child about what needs to be done. This could include a packing list for school (e.g., lunch bag, gym clothes, homework, agenda), a morning routine list (e.g., get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth) or a chore list.
  • Help your child learn to break long-term projects into manageable chunks. Encourage your child to regularly refer back to the instructions, and help them estimate how much time each step will take in order to develop a timeline. Encourage them to get started sooner rather than later. This will help their planning skills and make the task seem less overwhelming.
  • After your child completes an assignment, encourage them to reflect on how long they thought it would take compared to how long it actually took.
  • You may be concerned that your child has executive functioning difficulties that are getting in the way at school or home. In that case you may wish to talk to your child’s teacher, school support team, family doctor or a child psychologist.
References (and great resources for parents!): Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but Scattered:
The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. Guildford Press, New York, NY. National Centre for Learning Disabilities Editorial Team. (2013). Executive Function 101.