Planting Seeds: Building Executive Function Skills in Elementary Students

Updated: Nov 6, 2018

Executive Functioning begins to emerge in young children between 3 and 5 years old and continues to develop well into adolescence and early adulthood (Dawson and Guare, 2010). For many parents, elementary school can be a frustrating time, as children may struggle to remember daily tasks and routines. If frontal lobe development does not accelerate at a normal rate in later elementary school, keeping up with academic and social demands becomes overwhelming for students. Parents and teachers may find themselves needing to provide more scaffolding for these children than for peers of the same age.

Common struggles with executive function

We often see struggles with executive function play out in a variety of ways, including forgetting to complete or turn in assignments, lacking preparation for tests and projects, struggling to start work independently, and shutting down. Helping your child learn how to better manage academic demands through executive function coaching can help to alleviate their feelings of overwhelm and help lead them on the path to greater academic success.

While you have intimate knowledge of your child’s struggles with routine and organization in the home, you might need to consult with your child’s teacher to better understand the challenges he faces at school. You can begin by reviewing recent report cards or teacher narratives to identify problem behaviors in the classroom. Reach out to your child’s teacher to request assistance in identifying specific behaviors or areas of skill that have been problematic in the classroom:

  • Physical disorganization

  • Difficulty with transitions

  • Inappropriate behaviors

  • Missing oral instructions

  • Not reading and following written instructions

  • Not checking work

  • Not writing enough depth/detail in answers

How to support your student with executive function

Knowledge of these trouble spots is often a necessary first step for directed elementary executive function skill building. EF coaching with elementary aged students is based on modeling and creating routines, followed by making checklists to match those routines. This holds true when creating EF plans for both the home and school. A trained EF coach can assist you in designing new systems for your household and serve as a liaison between home and school to ensure your child’s EF skill building efforts are being properly nurtured and implemented in both environments.

Whether or not you choose to hire an EF coach to assist in these efforts, parents should be involved in the process to help establish daily routines and should participate in making and enforcing checklists to ensure completion of tasks. Often the parent-child relationship suffers tension because the parent is forced to serve as a stand-in for the still-developing frontal lobe of their elementary child. Checklists serve as a reminder to the student of the daily tasks they must complete. Below are some initial steps you can take to help your child with their executive functioning:

Establish a calendaring and task list system

  • Set up a planner for your student. Most elementary students are too young for an electronic planning system, but paper planners tend to work well and are great training for young students learning to manage academic and extracurricular responsibilities.

  • Create daily task lists that can easily be shared and involve your child in brainstorming the task lists (may include household chores and academic tasks)

*Morning Checklist – performed before school

*Afternoon Checklist – performed when home from school

*Evening Checklist – performed before bed, to set up the next day

  • Leave a hard copy of the task list in a prominent place in the home for the student and parents to refer to help with reinforcement of routines and accountability. With oral instructions from parents, adults are doing the step-by-step thinking for children. Using task lists, your child is learning how to be more autonomous by thinking through each step sequentially.

Oversee Homework

  • Some elementary school teachers list curricula and assignments on a school website.

  • If your child’s school has no curricula information listed online, you may need to refer to a daily/weekly assignment sheet provided by the teacher or establish a system with your child’s teacher to receive assignment updates.

  • Use this assignment sheet as a basis for helping your student fill in their planner and plan for the week ahead.

  • Your child may need help considering extracurricular activities and other scheduling obligations when planning how much time to set aside to complete homework tasks.

  • Start to help your child learn how to estimate how long each task will take.

  • Your child may benefit from learning to work ahead rather than only completing what is due the next day.

Physical Organization

  • Designate a specific homework station in the home that is free of distractions and stocked with necessary school materials.

  • Create a system for initiating homework at home and preparing student materials for return to school the next day.

  • Once the organizational system is established, most kids need help maintaining it. This process should be scaffolded with responsibility gradually shifting to the child.

  • Your child should learn to think ahead to the next day and pack her own backpack.

Games and Activities to strengthen EF Challenges

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, introducing your child to complex games and activities can provide executive function practice. In addition to modeling and reinforcing routines in the home, strategy games may improve a child’s executive function.

Here are a few of our favorite games and activities:

*Board games

  • Battleship

  • Clue

  • Connect Four

  • Mancala

  • Othello

  • Rack-O

  • Ticket to Ride

*Card games

  • Solitaire

  • Spit

  • Uno

*Computer games

  • Minecraft

*Physical activity

  • Dancing

  • Organized sports

  • Playing a musical instrument or singing

If your child is struggling with daily routines, managing homework tasks, or physical organization, she may need to work on EF skill building. While executive functioning will continue to develop throughout adolescence and early adulthood, these strategies can be put in place by parents and/or EF coaches to support the elementary student.

~Cherie Hines and Courtney Wittner

Directors, Hayutin & Associates

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Hayutin & Associates

Tel: 310.829.7505

Fax: 310.829.7514

2500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 100

Santa Monica, CA 90404

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