Innovative Strategies to Improve Executive Functions

Does your child frequently forget to bring home homework assignments or lose his or her train of thought when describing their school day to you? Does he need reminders (virtually everyday) to follow his morning routine before going to school? Does she take hours instead of minutes to complete her homework or, conversely, rush through it without checking for mistakes? If so, your child might be displaying difficulties with executive functioning skills.

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that help individuals with managing their thinking, behavior, and emotions. These brain-based skills help children with organization, memory, focusing, and planning. Difficulties with executive functioning skills are now being cited as a major explanation for children who appear to be very capable, but who struggle to reach their full academic and developmental potential. Children with poor executive functioning skills may have trouble completing a variety of tasks at school, such as taking notes, remembering to do homework, following classroom directions, and getting their ideas onto paper. Executive functioning deficits underlie psychiatric disorders like ADHD, many learning disabilities, and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Traditionally, strategies to improve executive functions have been focused on making accommodations for the child, therefore relieving the self-management demands made upon them. These include reducing the amount of work expected, allowing for verbal responses to testing, and providing them with extra time to complete assignments. Additional strategies, like visual schedules, graphic organizers, homework agendas, or tutoring support building executive skills. These traditional methods can be very powerful tools for helping a child with executive functioning difficulties. To assist you in implementing them, there are many great resources for parents listed at the bottom of this article.

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At LearningWorks for Kids, we focus on the use of technological strategies for helping children with executive functioning difficulties. In order for these strategies to be most helpful, parents, educators, and clinicians must recognize the importance of targeting the child’s specific executive functioning needs with the appropriate technology and then, most importantly, helping them to relate the skills they are using within that technology to real-world situations. LearningWorks for Kids’ game and app guides describe the best technologies to support and improve your child’s executive function skills and provide working examples of how to use them to achieve real-world improvements.

There are many other researched-based strategies that have been proven to improve executive functions in children. Unstructured play, board games, and social play can improve executive functioning skills. Recent research describes the power of exercise and sports in developing executive skills. Yoga, meditation, and other brain-training techniques can also improve a variety of thinking skills, including focus, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Learning a new skill–like a second language, art, or music–or involvement in social emotional training can dramatically improve executive functioning skills.

Read more:

Types of Accommodations to Include in an IEP or 504 Plan at the National Center for Learning Disabilities website

Strategies to Improve Executive Function by Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD

The Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge at the National Center for Learning Disabilities website

North Shore Pediatric Therapy in Illinois has compiled this comprehensive look at Executive Functioning Basics

Delve deeper into Thinking Skills and the principles behind what we do at LearningWorks for Kids, and learn even more about using digital technologies to help build executive functions in children and teens by reading Dr. Randy Kulman’s latest book, Playing Smarter in the Digital World.

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