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Raising Lifelong Learners title
Colleen Kessler, M.Ed.
Colleen Kessler, M.Ed.
“Understanding and developing executive function skills is critical to creating an ideal atmosphere for learning. These skills all help children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development…”
Nurturing Executive Function Skills:
A Comprehensive Guide
It’s co-op morning, and we’re already late …

… as usual.

y oldest forgot that today was an out-of-the-house day, despite looking at the calendar while we talked about what to eat for breakfast. My sweet second-born could not find her writing piece, even though I watched her put it in her folder when she finished and then put the folder inside her bag. My third-born sat on the couch waiting for everyone to quiet down so she could figure out what to do next–the noise was overwhelming, and she wanted to crawl back into bed and cry a little. The youngest was, well, running. He was running everywhere. And climbing the walls (literally), while yelling, “Co-op! Co-op!” at the top of his voice.

This delightfully distractible, disorganized crew is mine, and they show an enormous number of executive function struggles on an almost daily basis.

The truth is, they come by it honestly. I walk into rooms and forget why I’m there. I leave projects–like this article–to the last minute, despite having months and months to work. And, I often struggle with my own emotional regulation.

Homeschooling allows us to give our kids more freedom and a more personalized educational experience, but it’s important for their academic and personal growth that they understand and improve their executive function skills, too. Executive function skills are a group of mental abilities that help children (and adults) successfully handle their emotions, thoughts, and actions. These skills are important when it comes to our kiddos’ future success and contribute to tasks like being able to think creatively, remember things, stay organized, control emotions and impulses, start tasks, set priorities, and keep an eye on oneself.

The best part is that these are not skills you need to set aside a specific time to teach. Executive function skills can easily be incorporated into your regular day just by being intentional. Let’s look at the eight skills, what they are, and a few examples of how you can make sure your children are strengthening them.

Flexible Thinking
Flexible thinking is a cognitive trait that enables people to adjust to changing situations and examine other viewpoints.
Kids with rigid thinking don’t roll with the punches. They get frustrated when asked to think about things from different angles. They struggle to make changes in their behavior and their schedules, especially at the last minute.

Parents can foster flexible thinking by including a variety of learning tools, tailoring lesson plans to their children’s interests, and promoting creative problem-solving.

To help develop flexible thinking skills, parents can:
  • Bend the rules.
  • Teach positive self-talk.
  • Change the routine on a regular basis.
  • Tell jokes, riddles, and puzzles.
  • Read books about literal thinkers (Amelia Bedelia) and discuss the issues that arise.

Remember: When children have strong, flexible thinking skills, they are better equipped to solve problems, interact well, and focus. They can work through change and transitions when they can adapt their thinking.

Working Memory
Working memory is the mental workspace where information is temporarily stored and processed for cognitive tasks.
Strong working memory is essential for academic performance since it affects your children’s ability to follow directions, solve problems, and understand complex concepts.

Children with poor working memory have difficulty recalling directions, even if they have taken notes or you have repeated them multiple times. This greatly reduces their ability to perform tasks.

In a homeschooling situation, parents can improve working memory by using memory-building activities including memory games, debates, and interactive learning experiences. Creating a supportive environment with few distractions and delivering clear, concise instructions also help with working memory development.

To help develop working memory, parents can:
  • Encourage reading.
  • Practice visualization skills.
  • Feed their children memory-boosting foods.
  • Let your children teach you.
  • Play visual memory-building games.
  • Separate information into smaller bits.
  • Play card games.

Remember: Be patient. Encourage and minimize emotional stress. If your children are concerned about performing well or disappointing you, this adds a layer of stress that strains working memory even further.

two adults and a child playing dominos at a table with snacks
Organization skills are fundamental for academic success and personal development.
Children with weak organization skills can lose their train of thought—along with their cell phone, sheet music, schoolwork, favorite stuffed animal, and anything else that matters. They struggle to maintain order.

Routines, designated study locations, and the use of tools such as planners and calendars all contribute to children’s feelings of order and organization.

Teaching organizational skills also involves helping students in managing their study materials, completing assignments on time, and keeping a clean workspace. Organized students are more likely to thrive academically and develop a sense of responsibility that goes beyond their education.

To help develop organizational skills, parents can:
  • Help their kiddos learn to make effective lists and arrange them in a logical order.
  • Teach their children how to divide and conquer.
  • Have designated places for things.
  • Color code tasks, subjects, kids, and calendars.
  • Use whiteboards.
  • Set a weekly “clean and organize” day.
  • Help them learn to be cognizant of time.

Remember: Organization skills don’t always come easily for kids. They are something you may have to teach your children, regardless of their age.

Emotional Control
Emotional control refers to the ability to regulate and manage one’s emotions appropriately.
Children who have difficulty controlling their emotions tend to overreact. They may have trouble dealing with criticism and regrouping when things go wrong. They struggle to remain cool in situations that could trigger anger, fear, despair, or irritation.

Acknowledging and validating emotions, creating a positive learning environment, and fostering open communication help children develop emotional resilience.

Through activities like mindfulness exercises, emotional expression through art, and reflective discussions, parents can empower their children to recognize, understand, and regulate their emotions effectively. Emotional control is not only crucial for academic success but also for building strong interpersonal relationships and coping with life’s challenges.

To help strengthen emotional control, parents can:
  • Validate your children’s feelings.
  • Try to help kids in switching their perspective.
  • Role-play and discuss what is likely to happen.
  • Use social stories.
  • Talk about their own feelings often.
  • Seek professional help.

Remember: Your children are not overreacting; these sentiments and emotions are very genuine to them and should be validated, empathized with, and nurtured.

teacher at her desk in the front of the classroom helping out a student
Impulse Control
Impulse control involves resisting the urge to act on immediate desires or emotions.
This executive function skill is essential for maintaining focus, making thoughtful decisions, and avoiding impulsive actions.

Children with poor impulse control may blurt out inappropriate things. They’re more inclined to participate in dangerous activities. It stems from their inability to “put on the mental brakes” before acting.

Cultivate impulse control by incorporating activities that require patience, delayed gratification, and strategic thinking.

Structured activities, such as board games, puzzles, and collaborative projects, provide opportunities for children to practice and strengthen their impulse control. Reinforcing the importance of thinking before acting and discussing the consequences of impulsive decisions contributes to the overall development of self-discipline.

To help build impulse control, parents can:
  • Learn as much as possible.
  • Observe and take notes.
  • Role-play and discuss issue behaviors.
  • Catch their kids doing amazing things.
  • Connect with other parents.
  • Seek advice from experts.

Remember: Impulsivity is not a symptom of poor parenting; it is a brain-wiring issue. Your children’s brain differences make it challenging to manage behavior and responses. You can help kids gain control by providing them with the skills they need to grasp what is going on.

father and son planting small trees
Task Initiation
Task initiation involves the ability to start a task without unnecessary procrastination.
Kiddos who have weak task initiation skills may freeze up because they have no clue where they should begin. They struggle to start projects or tasks without someone telling them what exactly to do.

Parents can support task initiation by breaking down large tasks into smaller, manageable steps and setting realistic goals. Creating a consistent daily schedule, providing clear expectations, and incorporating engaging activities at the beginning of each learning session can help children develop the habit of task initiation. By fostering a proactive approach to learning, parents contribute to their children’s long-term academic success.

To help kids who struggle with task initiation, parents can:
  • Provide external support.
  • Use hands-on learning approaches to open discussions with their kids.
  • Model getting started on projects.
  • Provide structure, like time limits.
  • Encourage your kiddos to use self-talk.
  • Make it fun.

Remember: We all procrastinate. But procrastination can be a real issue when it gets out of hand or affects every part of life.

child playing with clay
Planning and Prioritizing
Planning and prioritizing are crucial executive function skills that guide individuals in organizing their time and resources effectively.
Kids with weak planning and prioritizing skills may freeze up because they have no idea where to begin. They struggle to maintain order and keep track of things. They lack the ability to accurately estimate how long a task will take and make good use of their time.

Involve children in the planning process for their academic goals, projects, and daily routines. Using planners, setting realistic deadlines, and helping prioritize tasks will develop these skills. Children who acquire these skills early on are better equipped to manage their time efficiently, leading to increased productivity and a sense of accomplishment.

To help kids who struggle with planning and prioritizing, parents can:
  • Teach their children to list everything out and identify which is most important.
  • Set goals.
  • Delegate and work on time management skills.
  • Develop systems with their kiddos.
  • Plan ahead.

Remember: It’s normal for kiddos who struggle with planning and prioritizing to feel overwhelmed when trying to divide a task into smaller, more manageable parts. It is also possible that they have a hard time understanding an idea or final goal.

Self-monitoring involves the ability to reflect on one’s own performance and adjust behaviors accordingly.
This executive function skill is essential for fostering independence and self-directed learning in homeschooled children.

Kids with weak self-monitoring skills may be surprised by a bad grade or when they receive negative feedback. They also struggle to understand themselves and why they do the things they do.

Parents can support self-monitoring by encouraging reflection on completed tasks, setting personal goals, and providing constructive feedback. Creating a positive and non-judgmental environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth contributes to the development of self-monitoring skills. As children become more aware of their strengths and areas for improvement, they gain autonomy and confidence in their learning journey.

To help kids strengthen their self-monitoring skills, parents can:
  • Model self-monitoring and regulation skills.
  • Talk about emotions with and near your children.
  • Help your kiddos develop self-talk and metacognitive skills.
  • Prep for outings with conversations and social stories.
  • Praise your kiddos as often as possible.

Remember: Things like tiredness, illness, and changes to the routine can affect your children’s ability to self-monitor. Talk them through these situations.

three kids smiling and being cheerful
Understanding and developing executive function skills is critical to creating an ideal atmosphere for learning. These skills all help children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.
By including activities that focus on these executive function skills, homeschooling parents can offer a well-rounded education that prepares their children for challenges in the future. As kids develop these skills, they not only achieve cognitively, but also develop the resilience, adaptability, and self-awareness needed to thrive in a variety of situations.

And, the entire homeschooling community may finally make it to co-op on time and prepared!

Join Colleen in The Learners Lab!
A community of parents with differently-wired kids—children and teens who are empathetic, sensitive, brilliant, intensely driven, ambitious, always moving, creative, and ready to take on the world. But they aren’t always easy. They need a different approach. In The Learner’s Lab, you’ll find both the resources and the support you need to help your children succeed and feel more connected as a family.
Colleen Kessler headshot

olleen Kessler believes that you are the absolute best teacher there is for your amazing child. The author of more than a dozen books, award-winning educator, educational consultant, and passionate advocate for the needs of differently-wired kids, Colleen has a B.S. in elementary education, an M.Ed. in gifted studies, and is the founder of the popular podcast and website Raising Lifelong Learners and The Learner’s Lab, a membership community for quirky and creative families. Her newest book, Raising Resilient Sons: A Boy Mom’s Guide to Building a Strong, Confident, and Emotionally Intelligent Family can be found anywhere books are sold.

Colleen lives in Northeast Ohio with her reading specialist husband, four delightfully differently-wired kiddos, pug, border collie, and an ever-changing assortment of small animals and insects.