While the “executive function” isn’t a very common term, we use these skills every day to learn, work, and live a productive life. They include the cognitive and mental skills we use to control behaviors, as well as plan, monitor, and execute on our goals.
Signs of executive function troubles can be far-ranging and include the inability to:
- Effectively manage time
- Plan, organize, and manage tasks
- Self-regulate emotions
- Stay focused and pay attention
- Remember things
- Solve problems
- Work on several things simultaneously
- Emphasize with others
While there are different schools of thought, many experts agree all these skills can be boiled down into three umbrella areas: working memory (the ability to remember and recall learned information), flexible thinking (the ability to think about something in more than one way), and self-control (the ability to inhibit certain desires and ignore distractions).
It’s important to know that trouble with executive function is not a diagnosis. However, it is common among children that have ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, or a speech or language disorder.
Executive Function and Homeschooling
By turning the home into a learning laboratory, homeschooling parents have the advantage of spending ample time with their children every day. While this gives you unique insight into your child’s behaviors and helps you more closely monitor how their executive function skills progress over time, it’s important to stay vigilant in identifying any issues. Because you don’t have a teacher or school administrator observing your child for red flags, you must be proactive in improving any executive function trouble areas.
While executive function is a big subject, let’s focus on a few powerful ways to naturally incorporate these skills into your learning environment. It’s important to remember that unlike learning a new math equation or vocabulary word, these skills won’t magically appear overnight. They take practice and patience, and to maximize your impact, it’s best to make these recommendations part of your educational routine so you can practice and reinforce them every day.
Keep Your Expectations in Check
As parents, it’s important we set appropriate expectations for our children based on their age and development. For example, we wouldn’t expect to hold our toddler’s attention for half an hour to complete a task. Here are a few examples of fun games and activities we can play with children depending on their age.
- Infants: Setting the foundation for strong executive function skills starts as early as a child’s infant years. Even though playing “peek-a-boo” might sound simple, it can actually be extraordinarily helpful. This is because it helps a child’s pattern recognition, as well as teaches them the benefits of self-control as they wait for the surprise “boo!”
- Toddlers: As children get a little older, we’ll want to work on a few more complicated skills. Games like “Simon Says” also reinforce self-control – they need to learn the ability to alternate between moving their bodies and staying still. This also helps this listen attentively and follow directions.
- Ages 3-4: Socializing your child is a big part of improving executive function skills. As a homeschool parent, it’s important to find opportunities to regularly engage them yourself and put them in situations where they’re around other children. Learning how to interact with their peers will help them learn the importance of sharing, turn-taking, and following rules.
- Ages 5 and Beyond: When your child begins to do more at-home learning and coursework, we want to surround them with fun recreational activities (that they enjoy) to hone these skills. This is the age we can start playing complex games that are more strategic in nature, increasing cognitive skills like working memory and the ability to plan ahead.
Create a “To-Do” or Checklist
Ever have that feeling where you have so many tasks to complete, you feel like you get nothing done? This can easily happen to children. Many have trouble finishing tasks because they don’t know where to start, what tasks to prioritize, or what “complete” even means. Creating an updated to-do list of all projects, assignments, and tasks might sound simple, but it can be incredibly helpful. Make sure to keep this list in a place that your child regularly checks every day – it can be beside their bed, on the kitchen fridge, or in the game room. Make sure to write down all of your child’s expected chores, work, and assignments, with a timeframe for when they should be finished. Nothing feels more satisfying than marking something off your to-do list, and its important children take part in this gratifying experience!
Provide Clear Instructions
We all know the frustration when a person or loved one “misinterprets” our instructions. This is more noticeable during COVID-19, when we may find ourselves with messier homes that have been converted into home offices. Getting your child to listen carefully to your instructions – and actually follow-through – is important in all aspects of their life, especially academics. One helpful tip is to make sure you provide clear, step-by-step instructions, and then have your child repeat them to you to ensure comprehension. Additionally, it’s important that your child understands not just “what” they need to complete, but “why.” For example: “You need to understand the meaning of this word so you can finish reading the book.”
Reward Your Child
It’s important that children can see the fruits of their labor. This doesn’t mean they necessarily need to be bribed with a new toy or sweets for their work. However, it’s crucial they understand that what they “want to do” is followed by what they “need to do.” For example, your child needs to finish reading their book if they want to open their new toy. They need to clean their room before they go ride their bicycle. Creating a reward system with clear expectations can instill important lifelong habits and help them see first-hand the positive effects of their effort.
Organize Bigger Projects into Smaller Tasks
Many children, especially those that have difficulty with executive function tasks, often become overwhelmed by tasks that feel intimidating. For example, you may know exactly what you mean when you tell them to clean their room. However, they may not know where to start: Making their bed? Cleaning their blocks? Folding their clothes? Breaking down these daunting projects into smaller, more achievable tasks can be very helpful. Use a simple “first…then” approach to instructions: “first you need to finish reading your book, then write down new vocab words, then make flashcards.”
A child’s ability to communicate clearly and confidently is related to many important executive function skills. For example, children need the ability to stay focused and have a strong memory to retain the information and knowledge that they read and hear. Additionally, to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas, they must be able to organize and process information so it can be communicated effectively.
Therefore, many children that have trouble with these skills often need additional speech and language support. Many families seek the help of speech-language pathologists, which are communication experts that assess, diagnoses, and treat speech and language issues. Because homeschoolers are used to receiving at-home instruction, and parents have chosen to be more involved in their child’s education, many families choose to receive these services online from the comfort of their homes. This allows parents to attend speech therapy sessions alongside their child, and work directly with their speech-language pathologists to reinforce best practices at home and incorporate lessons into their curriculum. Additionally, online speech therapy is often much more affordable than in-person therapy (there’s no expensive rent or overhead that comes with running a clinic), and more convenient (parents can choose session times that fit their teaching and work schedules – mornings, evenings, or weekends).