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Executive Function: How on Earth Do I Teach That?

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April 10, 2020

We recently discussed Executive Function as a skill to teach during the school closures. But how do you teach it?

The term executive function can be summed up as “management of what’s inside and around you”. Skills like organization, focus, time management, self-control, and goal-setting all spring from this idea. We can all agree that executive function is important, but teaching the concept doesn’t come in a simple package like a math workbook. On the bright side, this is something that you’ve been practicing your whole life. It doesn’t take much to turn that learning into teaching for your children.

Modeling Behavior

A major tool parents have in their teaching tool chest, especially if they are in isolation with their kids like so much of the country right now, is modeling. Kids learn by watching you do something. You can add to their understanding by explaining what you’re doing and getting them involved. This can be as simple as asking for input on a meal plan then discussing the merit of the options based on what you already have in the house and that week’s events. Through that conversation, your kids see what organization, focus, and planning might look like in the adult world.


You will hear the term scaffolding a lot in education circles. It simply means strengthening a child’s progress by providing support that helps them build on what they already know. You know your kids and probably know what parts of executive function will be the most difficult for them. It might require that you use a whiteboard or sticky notes for lists and reminders, a timer to set expectation, or a pre-made checklist for focus. Your child could be like one of mine. He works better with my physical presence nearby. When we both have tasks to get done, we sit side by side at the table. The growth comes in how long he is able to go without checking-in with me. Scaffolding in this unique situation means identifying where your child struggles and providing ways to help them without doing it for them. You can get creative!

Examples in Real Life

Obviously, executive function is an all day, every day skill. It shows up in almost every area of life. You can find all sorts of ways for your child to practice. But if you’re having trouble choosing a starting point, here are a couple areas where you can jump in.


Giving kids a list of responsibilities—along with clear expectations around how and when they should be done—forces kids to plan ahead and use time management, focus, and even short-term memory. The key is to give the tasks and expectations clearly and then walk away, not just physically but metaphorically. If you remind them every 15 minutes until it’s done, or mandate all of the specifics, you take away their chance to flex those executive function muscles. Make sure to scaffold with clear natural consequences as well as motivating rewards. You might also need to suggest things like a timer or phone reminder to give them a nudge or a checklist they can cross off. Toddlers won’t have much capacity to hold information over time, so this might be something like asking them to put their plates in the sink when they finish lunch. You can build from there to a full day of tasks and eventually weekly task for teenagers who might soon be out in the world on their own.


Moms get used to juggling so many things at once, they tend to automatically make decisions about how things will happen in the house.  The more you can train yourself to release those decisions to your kids, the more they can practice executive function. It can start with small things like free time and clothes. For example, you have a timer that counts down screen time that they can use at any point during the day until the time runs out. The decision of when to use the time is all theirs.

My children and I have a strange dynamic around their food independence. I’ve told them all of the breakfast options available and given them free choice over what they have and when to have it. For some reason, they just can’t manage to feed themselves most mornings, even though this means they get very hungry. I think they’re just hoping I’ll eventually offer to make pancakes! Conversely, during the rest of the day, they embrace the freedom and have ventured a lot further into cooking and trying new foods than I would have guessed. I’ve been treated to spinach salad, roasted vegetables, homemade garlic knots, and mac and cheese!

An unconventional choice that has worked out well for our family is independence over their schoolwork. I’ve heard from so many parents that struggle to get their kids through the distance learning every day. I can only imagine how stressful that is on top of everything else happening. My kids know they need to finish everything by the end of the day or by the deadlines set by their teachers. I scaffold that with a designated “quiet time” that is suggested for use in academics. Otherwise, they choose when, where, and how work gets done. So far it has worked, although I’ve had to bite my tongue a lot! There have been a few evenings a kid missed something else because they had to finish. I should add the caveat that I absolutely know this won’t work for everyone. Some kids and family dynamics are just not set up for this kind of working environment.

Every family is different, Every child is different. Things
are going to look different for each of us as we walk through the next few
months. I hope you find ways for you and your family to grow and learn through
it all!

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