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Strengthen Your Child’s Executive Functioning: 7 Strategies You Can Use at Home

Awareness
9 min read
executive functioning

For many people, the day after Labour Day marks more of a new year than January 1st. It is a time of considerable change for students and families.  With this shift from the summer routine comes increased demands for planning and prioritizing, remembering, organization and responsibility.  For some this is a smooth transition – yet others are filled with trepidation and an anxious feeling that their brains just aren’t made to deal with all of these expectations.

These feelings of anxiety are well founded.  We all have strengths and weaknesses in executive functioning (EF) – those mental processes that help us to plan, organize, process multiple tasks, remember instructions, control impulses, and work towards a goal.  Some of us are experts at seeing the big picture, others at focusing on the small details.  Some have trouble starting a task, others just can’t seem to get it across the finish line. Many have trouble focusing on tasks they find boring, yet can hyperfocus on topics of high interest to them. Regardless of your executive functioning style, there are strategies you can use to improve your thinking processes and productivity. 

The good news is that research now shows that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows the brain to develop and change – literally grow new neurons.  As parents, you can support this cognitive growth by collaborating with your child using these 7 EF friendly strategies.

  1. Designate a specific homework space

Students benefit from having a consistent study spot at home that they can associate with studying. For many families this tends to be the kitchen table. While this can be an ideal place to “keep an eye on things,” sustained focus can be a real challenge in this central area of activity. Look for a quiet space in the home with a desk or table.

If it’s your child’s bedroom, make sure they have a desk or table and good lighting. Beds are for rest and sleep – not conducive to productive thinking and healthy study habits. Invest in noise canceling headphones if they must work in a busy area. Some students with attention difficulties benefit from listening to quiet music to keep them on task.

executive functioning
  1. Create a homework kit

When your child eventually makes the decision to get down to work, you don’t want them to be sidetracked by searching for supplies.  Make it easy by creating a homework kit that includes: pens, paper, glue, scissors, chargers, highlighters etc.  Ask your child what they need. Keep these supplies at their homework station and separate from the ones that go in the backpack. Help your child practice putting items back in the kit when work is done until it becomes automatic and they do it independently.

  1. Take care of the physiological needs

Brains need hydration, food and breaks for optimal executive functioning. Help your child get in the habit of preparing a fresh water bottle for each study session. Provide a healthy snack such as veggies, hummus, cheese, fruit, crackers, etc. 

Get them to set a timer every 30 to 45 minutes for a quick 3 – 5  minute screen-free break. This can be a brain or a body break such as walking, stretching, exercising, listening to music, practicing mindfulness etc. Short breaks recharge their thinking power to help continue with the work. We have all experienced that feeling of not being able to think properly when we are hungry, thirsty or overworked. The same is true for our kids.

executive functioning
  1. Establish communication systems between home and school

Talk to your child about how information will be transferred from home to school and back again. Your level of involvement in this process will depend on your child’s age. Set up this system early in the year to avoid finding crumpled notices at the bottom of the backpack or missed important emails. Does the teacher communicate primarily by email? Set up electronic folders to hold all communications organized by the teacher’s name. Are permission slips or important communications provided on paper? Help your child to create a double sided binder pocket marked “to school” on one side  and “to home” on the other. 

  1. Set up a “Week at a Glance”

A monthly family wall calendar is a great way to keep track of appointments and activities for everyone to see. To build your child’s independence in their own planning, work with them to create a one page “Week at a Glance.”  This will help to develop their skills in planning, prioritizing, and time management – EF skills that they will need for life. 

Involve them in the process – ask them to enter times and durations of weekend as well as before and after school activities. Ask them to estimate travel times and getting ready times. Compare their estimations to the actual time spent to build an awareness of time. Set blocks of time for study sessions and social time. Encourage them to personalize their chart and colour code activities.  

Prompt them to keep their “Week at Glance” at the front of their binder with a copy on their bedroom wall.  Encourage independent use by asking them what they have on their schedule each day. 

  1. Encourage good organization

Many students (and adults) don’t intentionally organize their backpacks, lockers and personal spaces. You can help your child by working with them to decide together where things should be kept. 

Get their input. Every item should have a designated spot. At home, provide them with labeled containers for sports cloths, laundry, shoes, toys, collections, etc. Label pockets in backpacks and practice putting belongings in there – make it fun by timing how fast they can pack up. Practice builds automaticity which reduces the cognitive load. At school, provide locker shelves for books, bags for gym clothes, and pockets for stationary; discuss how they would like to organize items and label accordingly.  

executive functioning

Review items with your child regularly to decide if they need to be kept, given away, or discarded. Create a checklist of what goes to school daily and what comes home daily. Post it on the front door and inside their locker or on their desk.Create a designated “dump station” in your entryway where your child can put their coat, backpack and shoes etc. Even Kindergarteners can build independence and organizational skills when you demonstrate how.

  1. Stay on top of assignments

Students are typically provided with a paper agenda from school.  Get them in the habit of using it regularly. The act of writing down important information helps them to keep it in short term memory.  Even when no homework is assigned, students can mark “no homework” or “NH” so that they know they haven’t missed anything.This keeps the agenda top of mind daily. 

Some students like to colour code their assignments by subject. With your child, select a time of day to write in the agenda. Make sure your child knows where their homework is posted.  Even teachers in the same school can use different methods.  

Make a list of each teacher and how they post homework: Are the instructions in Google Classroom, on the white board, by hand-out, or given verbally? Encourage your child to problem solve if they have missed important instructions. Avoid trying to do it for them as you want to foster their independence in problem solving skills.

Older students continue to benefit from paper agendas – but keep it mind, it is not worth a battle.  If they prefer to use their phone and sync it to their electronic calendars and this is effective for them, that’s what counts.

executive functioning

It’s worth noting that building new executive functioning skills and creating new neuropathways doesn’t happen instantly, but with repeated actions and consistent effort, your child can build independence in these key cognitive areas. As parents, your role is to collaborate and encourage your child’s independence by providing them with the tools and strategies they need to literally change their brains. 

The mark of the new school year is all about transition and change which inherently causes stress. Being proactive about addressing some of these challenges in advance will make the back to school process much smoother for you and your family.

Summary:

  1. Designate work space at home
    1. Good lighting
    2. Away from distractions
    3. Consider noise canceling headphones
  2. Establish a homework kit
    1. Chargers
    2. Stationary
    3. Pens, pencils, highlighters etc.
  3. Take care of physiological needs
    1. Provide water, snacks, breaks
  4. Establish communication systems
    1. Email, paper or combination
    2. Systems for bringing papers back and forth
  5. Create a “Week at a Glance”
    1. List all extracurricular activities
    2. Count travel times and get ready times
    3. Determine reasonable study times and down times
    4. Colour code activities for easy reference
  6. Encourage good organizational habits
    1. Create systems for backpacks, lockers, personal spaces
    2. Decide if items should be kept, given away, or discarded
    3. Label containers and pockets so items are returned to the correct spot
  7. Keeping track of assignments
    1. Support use of paper agenda
    2. Avoid fighting about electronic agenda use for older kids (as long as it is effective)
    3. Record “No Homework” on days where there are no assignments
    4. Determine how teachers post assignments
    5. Encourage your child to do their own problem solving

Jo Stebbings is an Executive Function coach and owner of Reframe Education in North Vancouver. www.reframeeducation.ca

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