Educational Alternatives

Tips to Offer Children with Poor Executive Function Skill

Dana Stahl, a learning specialist and educational consultant, will address educational questions and concerns that parents may have regarding their children’s academic development and progress in school. Topics can center on how to handle homework dilemmas to what questions to ask at a CSE meeting. Questions can range from “How best do parents advocate for their children?” to “How do parents interpret formal tests that have been administered?” to “What schools and colleges are right for my child?”

Readers can write to Dana at Dana will respond to one reader’s question a month. Dana hopes that her response will alleviate parents’ concerns and offer useful educational advice.

Q. What Tips Can You Offer Children with Poor Executive Function Skill?

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A. Students who exhibit executive functioning challenges need to prioritize the most important steps required to complete assignments. They need to plan ahead, thinking about the steps necessary to organize their time, and estimating how much time each step may take to complete. 

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, executive function allows us to manage ourselves and access our resources in order to achieve a specific task. It involves both mental control and self-regulation. The Center describes executive function and self-regulation skills as the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. In their literature, they describe three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility and self-control:

  • Working memory allows us to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental flexibility helps us to sustain shifting our attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or response.

Students with executive function challenges will benefit from organizing their materials before they start work on a project. With long-term assignments, students should initiate a plan in timely fashion. During the interval between initiation and completion of a task, students need to complete multiple steps and use great diligence, which is often daunting and overwhelming. To succeed, students must be persistent, mindful of each section of a specific task and forging forward to complete interim steps along the way. 

When students feel frustrated and experience performance anxiety, they may find it helpful to keep their cool by regulating their emotions and trying a ‘smash the task’ approach. Using this technique, students can break down assignments into manageable components. In this way, they can lessen their angsts while demonstrating progress in completing assigned tasks.

A good way to do this is for students to assess whether they are on the right track. Students should ask themselves, ‘Is what I am doing working?’ Practicing metacognition (higher order thinking that enables understanding, analysis and control of one’s processes especially when engaged in learning)  affords them the opportunity to understand the ‘gestalt’ of the assignment.

Students also benefit from the ability to think flexibly in their approach to an assignment so they can change their strategies when needed. Controlling impulsive reactions allows them to think before they act and to keep distractions in check. By stopping, thinking and then acting, students are able to assess their options, which allows them to make sound decisions. Students need to learn how to transition from one task to another when they have completed one portion of an assigned task and need to initiate work on other parts.

 Understanding how to navigate and negotiate assignments permits students to work efficiently and effectively from initiation to completion of tasks. By using some of the strategies described above, children will improve their executive function skills. Ultimately, this will enhance the likelihood that your children will complete assignments to the best of their ability.

by Dana Stahl, M.Ed., Educational Alternatives LLC

Dana’s educational consultant practice focuses on assessment, advocacy and school placement for students with learning disabilities and social-emotional challenges.


  1. Executive Function & Self-Regulation. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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