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4 Ways to Help Develop Strong Executive Functioning Skills

By Alexandra Finkel

LCSW Kind Minds Therapy NYC


What is Executive Functioning, and why does it matter?

Executive Functioning skills are responsible for helping people of all ages manage things like organising, planning, self control, memory, and more. These skills are incredibly important for developing independence and the ability to follow through on tasks and thoughts.

There are many ways to build these skills in kids, and these are four of my favourites:

1. Set Up a Dedicated Workspace. Having a workspace that a child can rely on to complete assignments, do independent work, read, or plan makes a huge difference when setting a child up for success. When children need to decide where they will work, and don't know where the needed materials are, it can create unneeded stress before ever even beginning an assignment. By eliminating the need to determine where the work will be done, where the supplies are, and where the necessary materials are, kids are automatically ahead of the game and ready to get (and stay) on task. Things you might want to consider when setting up a work space are: - What is the best space in my home that is as quiet and secluded as possible? - What materials should always be in the work space that my child typically needs? Examples may include: pencils, pens, paper, a computer or tablet, a planner, a "calm down corner" (more on this below!), or any other item that your child typically needs when trying to complete a task. The idea is that everything that's needed will already be there so when it's time to start working, your child is ready.

2. Eliminate Distraction. While it may not be possible to eliminate ALL distraction, it is helpful to consider what type of distraction you can proactively remove from your child's work space. Examples may include: - Choosing a space that is secluded from other family members - Ensuring that there is no loud background noise such as from television, phone calls, other children yelling - Removing items from the space that may distract your child from staying on task such as toys, games, or unnecessary things on the desk.

3. Teach Your Child to Use Planning Tools Using planning tools can help your child prepare and develop long term planning skills. There are many options for planners available online, agenda books, or you can opt to create your own planning tool based on your child's individual needs. The goal is helping your child to have a predictable way to break down big assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks. Model this process for your child by choosing a large project and thinking aloud how to break it into small steps. Write down each step, and how long you think it will take you. Record when you will do the task, and how long you will allocate to complete it. Demonstrate checking tasks off of your list as you complete them. This type of planning takes practice and guidance, and will likely require you to start with providing a great deal of support, with a gradual release of responsibility as your child becomes more comfortable and confident.

4. Create a "Calm Down Corner" An essential part of developing strong executive functioning skills is the ability for your child to regulate his/her emotions and tolerate frustration when things feel difficult. Helping your child create a "calm down corner" that he/she can turn to in moments of frustration is invaluable to developing and practicing self-regulation skills. Examples of items that can be included in a Calm Down Corner are: - Glitter jar - Bubble wrap - Stress ball - Fidget spinners - Pinwheel or visual image for breathing - A list of "mindful minute" activities - A journal (for older children) - Slinky - A comforting stuffed animal Make sure to involve your child in the process of choosing items for the "Calm Down Corner", and teach what to do with each tool explicitly. In the beginning, children will need support and guidance to use these tools effectively. Consistency and repetition are essential when building executive functioning skills. Children will need to practice repeatedly before anything becomes "automatic". Working on these skills with your children can lead to improved academic performance, self confidence, and independence. Developing strong executive functioning will help your kids develop lifelong skills that can be used in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond.

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