Many parents find themselves taking a detour to their child’s school on a weekly basis to drop off forgotten items such as lunches, homework, and band instruments — yet again — even after reminders were given and sticky notes posted. Some parents are likely frustrated and ready to throw up their hands — but don’t do that just yet. There is hope. Know that your child is not forgetful, lazy, or an absent-minded professor in the making. More likely, they are simply struggling with executive function skills.
What is Executive Function?
Executive function (EF) refers to a critical mental skill set that helps people plan, focus, and juggle multiple tasks successfully — in other words, get things done. Executive function is thought to be regulated by the frontal lobe of the brain and encompasses skills such as organization, verbal and nonverbal working memory, initiative, persistence, flexibility, time management, impulse control, and emotional regulation.
“EF skills are not present at birth, but emerge over the course of a child’s development,” says Kerri Augusto, clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor at the Becker Counselor Training Clinic in Leicester. “Executive function helps us manage our emotions and monitor our thoughts so we can select and achieve goals, and develop solutions to problems encountered along the way.”
These are critical life skills in the making. For this reason, EF skills are equally important for children and adults alike. For younger children, these skills contribute to their ability to self-regulate and problem-solve. For school-age children, EF skills are needed to successfully navigate the demands of homework and class projects. As adults, we need this skill set in our toolbox to sustain relationships, employment, and successfully manage long-term projects at work.
Early childhood development and EF
“For young children, goals are often prescribed by parents and teachers, but executive function allows a child to remain focused on the goal even when other events come along and divert attention or interfere with memory,” Augusto explains.
More importantly, she says, EF provides young children with the emotional regulation skills needed to work toward a goal and negotiate challenges along the way.
Why is emotional regulation so important? This EF skill is one and the same and deeply intertwined with social-emotional skills — something children must master before other kinds of learning (such as academic) can occur, says Donna M. Denette, director and co-founder of Children First Enterprises, a nonprofit child care organization in Granby.
“It’s truly the foundation for all relationships and learning,” Denette says.
The easiest way to understand emotional regulation is by describing what it is not, she says.
“Imagine a toddler in a temper tantrum: Logic does not matter, the reasons behind a situation do not matter, and others do not matter. The child wants what he or she wants and they want it now. No one and nothing else really exist for the child at that moment,” she says. “Emotional regulation is the opposite of that: The individual can recognize that they exist in a situation, with reasons behind what is going on, with others who also have their own response to the situation, and they can exhibit some control over their own response to the situation.”
This is huge for preschool-age children, and even school children, because without emotional regulation, they cannot effectively problem-solve when faced with a challenge — of which there are many. When children are able to work through problems and overcome challenges, their confidence and self-esteem gets an important boost, helping them feel more confident the next time they encounter difficulties.
In addition to emotional regulation, other important EF skills emerge during child development, Augusto notes.
“In the first year of life, children develop behavior inhibition, or the ability to stop doing things that are not effective for achieving a goal,” she says. Simply put, this is the ability to think before acting. At the same time, children also develop working memory, which is a necessary component for “hindsight” and “forethought,” she adds.
"Between the ages of 3 and 9, children acquire language, which becomes another means for controlling their social world. Over time, the ability to have internalized speech and communication skills leads to the ability to form and understand rules, to self-monitor, and to think about and evaluate one’s own thoughts (a building block for effective problem-solving),” Augusto says.
Lastly, young children will develop “the ability to break complex behaviors into component parts and recombine them in novel ways to achieve new outcomes,” she adds.
According to Augusto, this particular skill takes time to develop and will not reach a reasonable level of function until mid- to late adolescence. Therefore, children must rely on trusted adults to assist them in making good social decisions and being effective problem-solvers.
Denette provides a typical scenario of this important EF skill in the following example: Two school-age siblings came to her office after “play-fighting” had escalated to a brief physical altercation. With her assistance, the siblings were able to break down the incident into component parts to find and analyze the exact moment when things changed from playing to hurting. With support, they were able to see that an inadvertent action was interpreted as purposeful, thus resulting in retaliation. When the hurt sibling was asked if he was 100% sure the action was purposeful, he admitted he was not, which allowed him to see how the outcome would have been different (not hurting his sibling and getting in trouble) had he not interpreted the action as purposeful.
EF and school-age children
Dan Levine is president and founder of Engaging Minds, an after-school learning center in Newton that focuses on teaching school-age children EF skills through the lens of homework. Prior to opening Engaging Minds in 2010, Levine worked in education, where he noted many kids just didn’t know how to study and prioritize schoolwork.
“They have information coming at them from all directions and then they must organize, prioritize, synthesize, and extract the right information,” he says about school-aged children today.
In past decades, schoolwork focused on passive studying, or memorization, whereas now more and more students are being asked to engage in active studying, he says.
“It’s a richer way of thinking. Today’s world is about solving problems,” he adds.
Levine emphasizes that Engaging Minds is not a homework club, rather, they are trying to have a long-term impact on students by teaching EF skills that will help them navigate school successfully. Oftentimes, when students are having trouble with schoolwork, he says it is not a content-based problem, the student is simply struggling with EF.
For example, if a child is struggling in math, is it a computation problem, or is the student struggling to understand what they’re solving for? Organization and working memory are two crucial EF skills needed to be able to effectively solve math problems.
“It’s important to understand what’s going on in their brain,” adds Emily O’Rourke, a middle school math teacher in Belchertown. “It can be difficult for them to get stuff from their brain to the paper, so it’s important to provide these students [those who struggle with EF] with different ways to show that they’ve learned the material.”
O’Rourke, who has also worked in special education, says she sees more students struggling with EF now that she is teaching math in the general school population. She strives to help these kids develop the skills they need to be independent, all while not sweating the small stuff, like lost worksheets, homework, and pencils.
“They need to know they’re safe, they need acceptance,” she adds. “As long as they learn the material, I’m not going to focus on that they lose things.”
She feels reprimanding students for forgetting pencils and losing worksheets is counter-productive: “They won’t feel good about themselves. Then they won’t want to come to school anymore.”
With acceptance, she feels students struggling with EF skills will be more open to learning strategies from their teachers that can help them with their EF struggles.
How parents can help
It’s important to note that many students who struggle with EF skills are oftentimes very intelligent and are capable of doing well in school — with the right tools tucked in their belt.
“EF skills have very little correlation with intelligence,” Levine says. “Everyone hits a brick wall. Smarts will get them so far, then they need the EF skills.”
O’Rourke agrees, and says that around 5th and 6th grade these “smart” students, who are lacking needed EF skills, will really begin to struggle, but there are ways parents can help their child at home.
To help kids tackle organization and time management, Levine recommends school-age children use an agenda to keep track of assignments. Many schools provide these for students.
“Using the agenda is important,” he says. “They have to have it written down.”
He advises parents help their kids prioritize their assignments in their agenda, even noting how long each assignment will take so they have a good understanding of what needs to get done at the outset.
While he highly recommends agendas, Levine knows it’s also important to give kids freedom to make their own choices about how to organize schoolwork. Aside from school agendas, kids can create their own agenda on a computer, and there are also apps available, such as iProcrastinate and iHomework, to help kids stay organized and on track, he says.
“They’re more invested in making it work, and it gives them some ownership,” he says about giving kids choices.
Levine also advises kids schedule time weekly to organize their papers so they don’t end up with an overstuffed binder.
Another big obstacle for kids struggling with EF is task initiation, i.e. getting started on homework or a big project. To parents, this may look like procrastination, indifference, or even laziness. Levine says parents need to identify what is getting in their child’s way when it comes to schoolwork.
“Sometimes parents do have to set real limits,” he says about distractions such as video games, television, and cell phones. Other times, children need help because they are feeling overwhelmed.
Levine says children who are overwhelmed by an assignment or project are more likely using electronics as an escape. Parents need to get at the root of the problem. Maybe their child didn’t write down the assignment, the assignment seems too big, or perhaps they are just “stuck” and don’t know how to proceed.
He suggests breaking down large assignments into manageable pieces, or working in short bursts, i.e, 20 minutes of homework, then a 5 minute break, 20 more minutes of homework, another 5 minute break, etc.
“When we feel we have some power over what’s in front of us, anxiety goes down and stress goes down,” Levine says. “I think for a lot of kids — and adults — feeling in control is important to being able to move forward effectively.”
When kids feel stuck, he says parents should avoid pointing them in the right direction or giving them the answer. Instead, encourage your child to self-advocate. Do they have class notes or a textbook they can look in? Is there a friend, tutor, or teacher they could ask? Is the information they need online?
When children are able to overcome challenges and obstacles on their own, they gain self-confidence, he says. They’ll then feel more confident that they can work through an obstacle or problem the next time they’re faced with one — something they’ll carry with them into adulthood.
When to seek professional help
Though there are some red flags parents can look for to assess if EF skills are a problem for their child, Augusto reminds parents that there will be normal differences in rates of development between child, and some children will simply need more support with EF skills than others.
Here are some basic guidelines and examples by school grade, regarding the typical development of EF in children, as shared by Augusto:
Preschool: Can follow simple, one-step directions, such as “Get your backpack,” and are able to inhibit simple behaviors, i.e. “Don’t bite.”
First/Second grade: Can follow three-step directions and also follow safety rules such as, “Look both ways before crossing the street.” Augusto cautions parents here that moving from kindergarten to first grade can be especially stressful, and there are many new demands placed on children at this age. “While children at this age can be expected to bring papers home from school, sorting them and knowing what to do with [them] may not be possible until Grade 4 or 5,” she says.
Fourth grade: Can complete simple chores with reminders, keep track of most belongings, complete homework with minimal prompting, and demonstrate manners and rule-following behavior when authorities are present.
Sixth grade: Complete chores without reminders, can use an organizer for homework, plan and carry out long-term projects, begin managing time for school, sports, and other responsibilities.
Augusto says parents who are concerned about the development of EF skills in their child should seek the advice of a mental health professional.
“Interventions for children with EF difficulties involve lending the child a ‘frontal lobe’ in the form of adult support, scaffolding demands, and, sometimes, changing the environment to better allow the child to filter out distractions and focus,” she adds.
“If we can learn these skills at an early age, we benefit enormously in the long term,” Levine adds. “Executive function skills are life skills.”