Focus on Executive Functions


5 Questions Every Parent Should Ask Before Sending their Child Back to School

Executive functioning has been a buzzword in the area of education and pediatric therapy for years. However, many parents and even professionals are still unclear as to what exactly executive functioning means. With the hectic, daily routine of parenting and school systems focusing on testing results and funding, who has time to do the research?

Well, it turns out that executive functions are involved in every aspect of one’s life. As adults, it is the set of cognitive processes that allows us to get along with others, work effectively around distractions, hold a job, manage a marriage, raise children and is the key ingredient needed in order to be a part of of a civil society. Sounds pretty important right?

The term executive functions is defined as a set of skills that act in a coordinated way to direct perception, emotion, thought and action. Executive functions control a person’s ability to engage in purposeful, organized, strategic, self-regulated and goal directed behavior.

More plainly stated executive functions give the commands to engage. They direct or cue the engagement of other mental processes that we use to perceive, feel, think and act. It is your inner dialogue, or ability to use self-talk, that is involved with many skills, including the ability to interact socially with others, manage time and get to where you need to be with the materials needed, and the ability to be able to think about your own thinking and actions. There are many other complex cognitive capacities that executive functions direct and cue. Learn more about them here.

School systems and educators are slowly learning how to support executive functions, but traditionally these crucial life skills are not explicitly taught. So before sending your child back to school, ask yourself these 5 questions:

How well does my child manage and maintain social relationships?

Most children pick up on and learn social expectations through natural interactions and experiences over time. However, children who struggle with executive functions often lack the awareness of how what they say and do comes across to others. With your child, make an effort to get a conversation going about social expectations and how the rules change based on context. Speak the unspoken rules and help your child become an observer of social language who can think about and attend to changes in tone of voice and changes in body language during conversations. When you notice an awkward social incident, discuss with them the reasons for such and ask them to determine what could have been done differently to make the situation more socially acceptable. The first step in changing a behavior is the ability to think about it and the second step is the ability to discuss it. So get in the habit of discussing the unwritten rules of social language with your child and you will help them become better able to deal with and adapt to different social situations.

How am I helping my child become an independent thinker?

Do you have to nag your child to complete their homework? Do you find yourself directing your child through every step of the process of getting ready for school each morning? If you do, you are not setting your child up to become an independent thinker. Help your child strengthen their executive functioning skills by discussing what steps are necessary to complete daily tasks. Have them make their own list and create a visual reminder to help them manage their routines. Help them increase their independence by creating the self-talk phrases they can ask themselves in order to get ready for their day. Help them develop the ability to ask themselves, “Do I have everything I need for school today?” Empower your child with the tools necessary to be prepared for their day so you can focus on being a supportive caregiver rather than being an annoying, nagging parent.

Does my child have the strategies and skills needed to control their emotions?

The ability to use self-talk to calm down in stressful or difficult situations is a skill that parents rarely explicitly teach their children. Most children are expected to be able to figure this out on their own. However, children who struggle with executive functioning often lack that inner dialogue that could help them calm down in stressful situations. Help your child develop the phrases to tell themselves when things get difficult so they can use them to deescalate situations as they arise. Help your child develop phrases to tell themselves to “take a deep breath”, or realize the size of the problem is not as big as it may seem. Provide a model for good self-regulation in your own interactions with adults to help your child develop strong self-control and flexible thinking.

Is my child aware of their needs as a learner?

Teachers often ask students to study for an exam or prepare for a presentation, but how often to they take the time to teach the skills needed to be successful at these tasks? Does your child know the best way to study for a test? Do they know what methods work best for them? What works well for one child, may not be the best method for another so it is important to have the discussion and try different techniques. Does your child know tips for completing assessments? Do they know tips for completing matching and multiple choice questions? Teachers often assume that students arrive in their class with these skills intact, but often that is not the case. Don’t assume your child has these organization systems in place. Discuss with them the tips necessary to complete different types of assessments and help them become more aware of what they need to be a successful student and make the most of their school experience.

How can I help my child deal with distractions?

As adults, we have learned to deal with distractions in order to get our jobs done and complete tasks throughout our day. With advances in technology, distractions are becoming a huge hindrance to children’s ability to complete tasks. What strategies does your child use to help reduce distractions? Help your child discover and create an environment in the home where they can work efficiently without distractions from television, smart phones, and noises in the home. Discuss with your child and help them figure out what setting is best for them to complete work both in school and in the home.

After asking yourself these questions, you might not have all of the answers, but getting the conversation going with your child is a step in the right direction towards helping your child have a more successful and productive school year.

Both occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists are trained to work on improving executive functions. They focus on helping children improve social awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to understand different perspectives and problem solve different situations.

Focus on Executive Functions: 5 Questions Every Parent Should Ask Before Sending Their Child Back to School
Catherine Tintle, M. Ed. CCC-SLP

Catherine Tintle is a speech-language pathologist who is passionate about helping children develop and refine social skills, executive functions, and expressive language. She works for Carolina Pediatric Therapy and is an avid blogger and creator of speech therapy materials. Find out more about her on her website,

George McCloskey, Ph.D.
Professor and Director,
Department of Psychology
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Deborah A. Philips, Ph. D.
Department of Psychology and Public Policy Institute
Georgetown University
Center on the Developing Child
Harvard University
Helpful Resources: Zones of Regulation | Mind Up Curriculum | Social Thinking Curriculum

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