Mayday, Mayday, Executive Functions Going Down!

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If you dread hurrying to get out of the door to make it on time for the bus or for school, without a child that is missing a shoe, a snack, or has his shirt on backwards, you are not alone. And there is hope for us. That morning rush is likely to feel this crazy not because you have failed a career as a shepherd, but because our young children are still growing those so important executive skills necessary to organize and schedule their lives.

Executive skills, also called Executive Function, refer to patterns of thoughts such as planning, controlling impulses, mental flexibility, organizing, and carrying out a plan. These basic thought processes guide each and every one of our actions, like cleaning toys, making a sandwich, grocery shopping, scheduling a day, getting dressed, packing a backpack, baking a cake, or managing any work project…and making it out the door prepared and on time for school! Executive skills are also very important to academic success since they are required to successfully complete any homework.

As the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child puts it:

“Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways.”

So, right now, it looks like you are that traffic control system (not to mention the entire airport) as a one-man/woman show. But executive functions can be trained and, actually, proper support during the earlier years of a child’s life is critical to successfully develop these skills.

How to work on executive skills:

Although the exact number of skills believed to be involved in executive function still varies among experts, most will agree with Harvard University to include at least 3 main functions:

  • Inhibitory control will help a child stop what he is doing and let the other child take his turn (turn-taking).
  • Working memory is used to remember what you were supposed to do if you are stopped or distracted in the middle of a task.
  • Mental flexibility helps a child adjust what they were about to do next when the conditions change.

To complete that list, The National Center for Learning Disabilities categorizes 8 important skills as part of executive function. Each skill is listed below, along with typical manifestations that indicate when a child might need more support, followed by tips to encourage the development of each skill.


Task Initiation

Mayday signs:

  • procrastinating before and during a task
  • finding excuses to delay the beginning of the task
  • unable to complete 3 or 4 assignments in a row
  • finishing projects late

Pit-stop tip:

Ready, set, go! Using a timer in 5 or 10 minutes intervals is a great way to help your child focus on the task at hand. Try reminding him of the benefits or rewards that may follow.


Mayday signs:

  • unable to set priorities
  • being unprepared (undressed for school)
  • underestimating the difficulty of a task or how long it takes
  • unable to summarize a story

Pit-stop tip:

Ask your child to list 5 activities he would like to do that day, and how he will plan them. Ex: “To play doctor, I will make myself a stethoscope out of cardboard, X will be my patient and the bedroom will be the hospital”. Finally, you could also teach your child how to get ready for the day ahead: list activities, materials needed, and pack his backpack together.

Impulse Control

Mayday signs:

  • talking all the time, interrupting conversations
  • not respecting turns during play
  • not reading directions
  • rushing through assignments
  • being impulsive
  • getting started on a project at the last minute

Pit-stop tip:

Cooking, and waiting patiently for the treat to be cooked before being able to enjoy it, is a great way to work on impulse control as it works on delayed gratification (use a timer to make it easier). Another great activity that also involves planning is grocery shopping: get your child involved in the process, from listing what’s missing in the fridge and pantry and what is necessary for a particular meal or a recipe (planning), to purchasing the items and sticking to the list (impulse control). “First-then” statements are also a good way to organize children’s minds and practice impulse control.

Emotional Control

Mayday signs:

  • rejecting criticism
  • thinking things are always unfair
  • being inconsistent in the way he respects rules or follows directions
  • overreacting when he loses a game
  • giving up if frustrated or upset

Pit-stop tip:

Board games and group games are a great way to teach children to learn and respect rules, and manage their emotions during the game. Dragon breaths (deep breathing) exercises of course are always a good technique to keep emotions in check.

Mental flexibility

Mayday signs:

  • ‘rigid’ attitude; difficulties if routine is disrupted
  • trouble with transitions
  • intolerant to change of strategy or tactics
  • lost in open-ended assignments that require to find new ways to solve a problem.

Pit-stop tip:

Progressively introduce changes to his diet, his routine. Use a chart to write his schedule. Using a “5 minutes to…x (bath time, or bedtime) technique will help him understand when it is time to transition, and respect it better (especially with a timer).

Working Memory

Mayday signs:

  • not remembering the task at hand if interrupted
  • difficulty following verbal directions
  • difficulty following multi-steps directions
  • not remembering what was just read or explained to him
  • forgetting what needs to be brought to class/activity

Pit-stop tip:

Following a recipe, gardening, building a model, or making a toy are great ways to practice following directions and keeping track of the task at hand. For example, try giving directions for the morning routine, and add one more step every week. Following a 3-steps direction is a realistic goal for children up to 5 years old.


Mayday signs:

  • carelessness or inattentiveness (coloring all over, unreadable writing)
  • unwillingly skipping steps
  • not paying attention to time limits (rushing it or running out of time)

Pit-stop tips:

Ask your child what he thinks of his work; what he would think of it if a friend had made it, or if dad had made it? Could it be improved? If he cleans his room poorly, make sure you notice and don’t let him get away with it. Spending an added 5-10 minutes to fix what wasn’t done correctly the first time will help him realize what the standards are, and respect them next time. Learning to read time on a clock/hand watch might also help.


Mayday signs:

  • losing things
  • inability to organize and categorize items, even if they might want/like to.
  • having a messy room and workspace
  • always looking for things/inability to find things
  • difficulty with puzzles, putting clothes away or cleaning toys in the appropriate place.

Pit-stop tip:

Create a “place for each thing, and a thing for each place”. Find cubicles, drawers, shelves, and label/color code them. Make sure your child knows where things go. Practice cleaning with him, let him chose the place or the color code.

Finally, remember that executive skills are lifelong skills that develop gradually and at different pace for every child. I recommend working along with all your child’s teachers/caregivers to tailor exercises to his particular needs. Although executive function improves radically during the first few years, it keeps developing throughout the teenage years until adulthood. Working on those skills progressively and constantly will help an adult to become a productive member of the workforce, and an active part of a civil society.


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from

Smart But Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare

Executive Function: A New Lens for Viewing Your Child

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