7 Tips to Improve Executive Function Skills for Texas Kids

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Hands hold a cutout of head-shaped paper with scribbles that represent fuzzy brain wiring.When we received my son’s ADHD diagnosis, we walked out of that appointment with some labels, a prescription, and a vague recommendation to join a social skills group. While the neuropsychologist likely didn’t want to overwhelm me on day one, she left me feeling lost. How was I supposed to help my child when the pills wore off, when he wasn’t at home, when his self-esteem was plummeting?

For months, I dug into books and research, and started noticing the buzzwords “executive functions.” Little did I know that understanding this framework would help my son thrive.

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What Is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning (EF) refers to a set of brain processes, primarily in the frontal lobe, that regulate cognitive functions to achieve something, like the brain’s CEO or an orchestra conductor ensuring everyone plays in harmony.

Despite decades of research, consensus on the definition varies, but typically references these key skills:

  • Cognitive flexibility :: Easily switching between tasks, adapting to situations, and revising plans.
  • Emotional regulation :: Managing and expressing feelings appropriately.
  • Inhibition or self-control :: Stopping and thinking before acting.
  • Organization :: Developing and using systems to keep track of and categorize things or information.
  • Planning :: Creating steps to reach a goal, and managing time.
  • Self awareness :: Viewing and evaluating oneself.
  • Task initiation :: Starting and finishing tasks without procrastination or immediate external consequences.
  • Working memory :: Holding things in your mind and making mental pictures.

Typically, EF skills aren’t fully developed until around age 30, but delays and deficits can occur. Delays determine “executive age,” and are often associated with conditions like ADHD, autism, and some mental health disorders. Understanding “executive age” will explain behavioral differences in children and can guide realistic expectations. For example, the executive functions of children with ADHD are, on average, 30 percent behind their peers developmentally. Additionally, some children are able to demonstrate these skills but have issues applying them consistently, leaving many teachers and parents puzzled.

A child’s executive dysfunction manifests in cognitive challenges such as difficulty starting tasks, difficulty following directions, emotional outbursts, poor time management, and disorganization. These behaviors often lead to negative outcomes like low self-esteem and academic struggles. Teaching these skills is vital for improving quality of life.

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weekday school morning routineHow to Assess EF Skills

Formal assessments can be conducted by licensed professionals like neuropsychologists, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, physicians, and therapists. Less formal assessments are offered by educational therapists, executive function coaches, and academic coaches.

Online self-assessment tools can offer guidance, too. Here are a few:

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7 Tips to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

Helping neurodivergent kids with executive function issues requires finding the correct strategy for their unique brain AND getting their buy-in. Success comes from routines and scaffolding, or creating systems and supports, to encourage a growth mindset — a mindset that increases the likelihood of applying these new skills to other areas of life.

While creating routines requires work up front, the payoff is big. Here are seven tips to create routines and a growth mindset:

  1. Externalize :: Take the load off your child’s brain by visual aids like calendars, sticky notes, and times to ensure tasks are completed.
  2. Environment :: Seek settings with ideal conditions and limited distractions. Think: silence, an organized desk, a workspace far away from the TV or phone.
  3. Strategize :: Plan cognitively-demanding tasks for when your child has the most energy and focus, such as early in the morning or post exercise. Tune into learning styles, as some kids learn better through visual or kinesthetic methods.
  4. Urgency :: Work better on a deadline? Help create more immediate and concrete payoffs like a mid-point check-in with a teacher, or a rule that video games only come after homework is done.
  5. Rewards :: Help your child feel enthusiastic about achieving his or her goal. Experiment with the right cues, activities, and rewards. Praise effort — this will increase motivation and perseverance — and always celebrate the micro-wins.
  6. Structure :: “Chunking” is a key strategy to tackle bigger tasks by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable, chunks or time increments. Add “brain breaks” to these blocks of time.
  7. Support :: In addition to coaching your own child, building a strong support team is helpful. Start by partnering with the school (EF skills make great IEP goals!) and explore hiring an EF coach or occupational therapist, if needed. Medication can also be prescribed as a complementary tool to improve skill demonstration.
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boy dressed as superhero flexing muscles

Understanding Leads to Empowerment

Avoid falling into the trap of wanting to “fix” your child. Instead, approach EF skill development through a lens of compassion. Replace discouraging messages like “You just need to try harder” with validating ones like, “I see this is hard for you. How can I support you? Let’s make a plan together.”

From this transformational mindset, your child will be empowered to grow his or her strengths, build scaffolding for his or her challenges, advocate for his or her needs, and struggle less while navigating a world not built for his or her unique brain wiring.

And remember to pace yourself — one skill at a time. Its’ a journey, not a sprint.

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Jennifer Pressley
Meet Jennifer, a native Texan now based in McKinney. After a varied career in fashion retail and ecommerce, she is now embarking on a new journey and in training to be a certified ADHD Life Coach for students and parents. She and her hubby of 15 years love globetrotting and have visited 21 countries together. When not shuttling her two kids to activities, catch her staying active in her home gym, binge-watching Netflix, or savoring wine nights with pals.


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