Executive Functioning: How to Help Your Child Improve Their Independence

Executive Functioning: How to Help Your Child Improve Their Independence

As a parent you are likely familiar with the idea of completing multiple tasks at once.

While you are cooking dinner you may also be helping your child complete their homework, doing the laundry, and sending an email to your boss that must be submitted before you can sit down to eat. Although completing multiple tasks at once may now feel like something that is second nature, the skills that are needed to juggle all of these different roles are being developed from the time you are born; they are called executive functioning skills. Executive functioning defines a set of skills including attention, emotional control, impulse control, planning and prioritizing, organization, self-monitoring, and working memory. These skills are important for school, work, maintaining friendships, and interacting with the people in your community.

There are three main skill categories within the umbrella term of executive functioning: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Working memory is the ability to retain information in the mind and use it when needed. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust to changes in a situation as they arise. Inhibitory control is the ability to think before acting or to resist distractions or temptations. These skills develop throughout childhood as we are exposed to different experiences and challenges that rely upon these skills for success. These skills are also modeled to us by peers and adults when we observe others using their problem solving abilities.

Executive functioning skills develop as your brain matures however research shows that the early years of development may have the most profound impact on executive functioning development (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2015). As a parent it is important to support your child as they develop these skills by meeting them where they are and providing the support they need to foster these skills. Think of this as providing the “just right challenge” where you set your child up with a challenge, encourage them to problem solve solutions, and use yourself as a model for how to use flexible thinking when the task becomes too much for your child. While many of the neural pathways for developing these skills emerge prior to age 5, your child will continue to build upon and refine these skills into their adult life. Remember to give your child more time to think through and problem solve than it takes you; they are still learning these skills that you have had time to practice! There are many ways that you can work on these skills at home, read the ones listed below for a start to working on executive functioning skills at home.


Infants and Toddlers

  • Talk with and engage your child to help them build skills for focused attention.
  • Provide different textures and environments to your child to help them manage their reactions and encourage them to explore new things.
  • Play repetitive games such as peek-a-boo or hide and seek so your child can learn how to control their reactions and maintain attention with a semi- structured activity.

Preschool Age

  •  Use imaginary play to have your child remain focused on a task, plan, prioritize, and organize.
  • Discuss feelings and emotions, validate what your child is feeling when they are overwhelmed and help them develop language for these feelings for improved emotional control.
  • Sing songs that have actions and movement to help your child learn to follow the plan, organize their body, and inhibit impulses as needed.
  • Puzzles and matching games allow your child the opportunity to problem solve, use working memory, and planning skills.


Elementary Age Children

  • Play red light, green light or Simon Says to work on impulse control, attention, and flexibility.
  • Introduce board games that involve strategy and fast responses to address working memory and problem solving.
  • Introduce structured sports such as soccer or dance to help your child make quick decisions, block out external distractions, and engage in a group.
  • Music, singing, and dance help your child to use working memory, selective attention, and self- monitoring skills.


  • Help your child set goals and work to achieve them, give reminders to monitor their behavior and determine what is and is not working.
  • Help your child create a system for organizing their school work and assignments, check in to be sure this is working for them and if it isn’t help them find a system that will.
  • Guide your child to understand their feelings and how these impact their actions, as well as how they can control their automatic impulses. Discuss alternative options and larger social issues.
  • Help your child find activities such as sports, music, or logic games that challenge their working memory, social skills, and problem solving abilities.

    If you notice that your child is having a particularly challenging time with executive functioning skills an occupational therapist may be able to help.

    Restructuring the way that activities are presented and providing environmental supports may help your child be successful with tasks that are currently overwhelming for them. Remember, we all learn by practicing so work to provide opportunities for your child to develop these skills in their daily routines and play.


     ALI HARRIGAN, MOT, OTR/L is a Licensed Occupational Therapist with Carolina Pediatric Therapy. She is a part of an interprofessional collaborative team including behavioral health, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and psychologists dedicated to supporting and promoting children’s development and well being.

    Sources: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2015, May). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved June 23, 2020 from https:// developingchild.harvard.edu/

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