The 5 Cs of Nurturing Your Kid’s Executive Functioning Skills

“You haven’t cleaned anything!” I yelled at my nine year old after sending him to clean his room an hour ago. A few years back, this was me. Feeling powerless. I knew that wasn’t the parent I wanted to be.

This scenario isn’t an uncommon one in many homes, but it’s particularly frequent where children have executive function deficits. Executive functioning (EF) skills, or the mental processes that help us execute or perform tasks, are critical to helping children navigate life, and are the foundation of personal growth and academic success.

All kids are developing EF skills, but neurodivergent children with ADHD, autism, and some learning differences often have greater EF challenges than same-age peers. Additionally, these highly-sensitive kids have a tendency to move into a dysregulated nervous system when a parent uses traditional strategies. Overwhelmed and frustrated parents can often resort to yelling, threats, and punishment, and children end up with anger or shame.

But with the tools of consideration, connection, positive communication, collaboration, and practice in their toolbox, parents can feel empowered to make the home environment a training ground for building skills while preserving harmony and self-esteem.

>> RELATED READ:: 7 Tips to Improve Executive Function Skills for Texas Kids <<

mother helping daughter with homework

Step 1 :: Considerations

Is my child ready? There is often a mismatch between expectations and what a child’s brain is truly ready for. Psychologists generally agree that kids do well when they can. So, this means it doesn’t matter what you think an X year old should be able to do, what matters is what your X year old is doing. Meet your child where he or she is and build from there. As he or she shifts toward autonomy and forms an identity in the teen years, tailor your approach by age and stage.

Can I still help my child if I, the parent, also struggle with executive functioning? This is a common concern, as there are often genetic components with learning differences and ADHD. There is no shame in admitting that you are working on improving your own skills. Engage in the learning process alongside your child, and it will make it less intimidating and more relatable.

Step 2 :: Connection

Teaching executive functioning skills starts with understanding and connection. Connection, in this sense, means attunement, or being responsive and sensitive to another’s experience. When a child experiences EF skill deficits, parents tend to get frustrated. Kids pick up on these negative emotions and may shut down or fight back.

Stay regulated and open-minded. (NOTE: This takes A LOT of practice!) Instead of assuming that you already know your child’s point of view, motive, or experience, offer empathy and get genuinely curious about your his or her perspective. Listen to fully understand. Show that you are actively listening, and validate his or her feelings (even when you don’t agree). One go-to script is: “I see you’re having some trouble with ____. What’s up?”

These tools for connection increase regulation (versus dysregulation) with patience, reassurance, and helping your child name his or her feelings.

mother kneeling to tie son's shoe

Step 3 :: Communication

After filling your child’s “connection” bucket, turn to her “power” bucket. After all, who doesn’t like feeling in control? Kids need to exercise free will. Without allowing or presenting them choices, children might act out by rebelling against constant orders and demands. Instead, offer legitimate choices when possible, use observations instead of issuing commands, and state the facts: “I see a dirty plate on the table.” This prompts your child to make a choice for his or herself.

Additionally, empower them with the WHY — kids are naturally curious. The more they understand cause and effect, or why something is important, the more they can use that to design a solution or motivate themselves. For example, “If you leave your bike outside, then it will get rusty when it rains tonight,” is a cause-and-effect statement meant to lure a positive and creative behavior from your child. Get ready to see those EF skills in action!

And when in doubt, fight the urge to lecture. If your kid already knows what to do, try a single word to jog their memory, like “homework.”

Language is also important when they falter. Discipline, from the Latin word “disciplina,” means teaching. Instead of punishment, try offering a do-over or reset — an opportunity to try again — which is often where learning happens for long-term effectiveness.

dad and son scrubbing bathroom together

Step 4 :: Collaboration

When expecting our children to use their EF skills, the key is to provide just enough challenge to stretch their abilities, but not so much it leads to failure. The below approach allows you to fade your support slowly as skills progress:

  1. Model the desired behavior.
  2. Do it together.
  3. Supervise the child doing the task.
  4. Fade supervision while offering prompts and/or check-ins as needed.

For some problematic tasks, like cleaning his or her bedroom, a more formal approach is needed. Define the goal (cleaning your room by yourself) and outline steps to reach it, including a checklist for tracking. Involving the child in this process encourages accountability and collaboration, allowing everyone to feel heard and get their needs met.

Parents can communicate their boundaries, expectations, and rules without conflict, threats, or punishment, while showing their children that they respect their growing independence. When both parties are calm, share your concerns and start asking questions. “I know we can figure this out together. Do you have any ideas?” Get buy-in and ownership by asking why its meaningful to them. Discover distractions and obstacles during these conversations, and figure out how to remove those barriers. Then explore self-talk and what words of affirmation they need to tell themselves for accountability and self-esteem.

>> RELATED READ:: IEPs, 504s, & How to Advocate for Your Kid’s Learning Differences <<

Step 5 :: Consistency

Developing executive functioning skills is a process that requires practice, patience, repetition, and feedback. It’s not something that can be mastered overnight, but nurturing these skills at home can significantly benefit your child’s development.

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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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