By: Cristina Sperrazza, PsyD | Clinical Neuropsychologist

The term “executive functioning” refers to the set of skills that helps us complete tasks efficiently (or execute functions!). These skills make goal-directed behavior possible! Executive functions are commonly thought of as the “CEO of our brain”. They allow us to plan and carry out tasks by sharing the workload across different parts of our brain so we can access different mental skills as needed in order to accomplish our goals. Across the lifespan, we all rely on different executive functions to help us across settings. Here are some practical strategies to try out at home to support your or your child’s executive functioning.

1. Inhibitory Control – relates to discipline, self-control, and focused attention

  • Plan ahead: Establish a weekly routine of setting aside some time every Sunday evening to go over due dates (e.g., upcoming tests, assignments, work presentations), upcoming events (e.g., soccer practice, doctor’s appointments), and other important tasks (e.g., bills to pay, chores to get to) for the upcoming week.
  • Stay on task and on track: Determine how you will keep track of these due dates, upcoming events, and other important tasks. For example, using a paper or electronic planner can be helpful with a color-coded system (e.g., use red for school or work due dates, use blue for sports-related events, use green for important appointments). If using a paper planner, decide if it will be helpful to use a daily, weekly, or monthly layout. If using an electronic planner, take advantage of the reminder features. To hold yourself accountable, you can even share electronic calendars with other family members or friends.
  • Prioritize tasks: Make a list of tasks and rate each one on a scale of 1-5 for importance and 1-5 for urgency. Important and urgent tasks should be completed first (e.g., homework due tomorrow). Schedule or make a plan for things that are important but not urgent (e.g., studying for a test next week). Next, attend to things that are urgent but not (academically) important (e.g., getting to soccer practice on time). Leave for later, or drop completely, those things that are neither important nor urgent (e.g., catching up on emails).

2. Working Memory – relates to attending to the information we use from moment to moment

  • Write things down: When it comes to memory, we are more likely to remember handwritten notes than typed notes. Implement visual strategies, such as using color-coded pens, highlighting, underlining key words or topics, implementing a form of short-hand, or using stickers as visual cues.
  • Reminders: Use external cues as prompts in order to remember to complete tasks (e.g., colorful post-its, timers). Phone applications that may be useful include Reminders, Any.do, Trello, Todoist, Plan-It, and my.Homework.
  • Review: Use rehearsal and repetition strategies (e.g., flash cards, self-testing, practice presentation aloud over and over) to transfer material from temporary working memory to long-term memory. Utilize the “production effect,” or the dual action of speaking and hearing yourself. Read text aloud to yourself in real time and/or audio record yourself to listen to at later times.

3. Cognitive/Mental Flexibility – relates to flexibility shifting your focus of attention

  • Break tasks down: Make a list of small steps using post-its or a whiteboard so it is easy to remove items once complete. Estimate the time for each step so you can work in small time chunks (10-20 minutes) with scheduled brief breaks in between tasks.
  • Improve task vigilance: To promote optimal attention, use a timer to work more efficiently for shorter periods at a time. Set a timer to work consistently on tasks for short periods (e.g., 10 minutes). Then, set another timer to take a short break (e.g., 3-5 minutes). Ideal break activities include getting a snack, walking around the house, doing jumping jacks, or access to fidget toys. Avoid screen time or leaving the home during breaks. Keep alternating between short periods of work and short breaks, while gradually increasing the duration of work over time. Alternate between preferred and non-preferred tasks.

Resources and References:

Smart but Scattered, by Pam Dawson and Richard Guare (2008)

The Organized Child, by Richard Gallagher (2018)

The Work-Smart Academic Planner, by Pam Dawson and Richard Guare (2015)

Executive Functioning Strategies for Teens, by Laurie Chaikind McNutly (2020)

Executive Function: https://www.thepathway2success.com/interventions-for-executive-functioning-challenges-task-initiation/, https://efpractice.com/, and http://www.efintheclassroom.net/, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/activities-guide-enhancing-and-practicing-executive-function-skills-with-children-from-infancy-to-adolescence/

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