Back-to-School and Back-to-Basics: 3 Simple Ways to Boost Executive Functioning Skills

It is September, and we all know what that means! Time to sharpen those pencils and head back to school. For many kids (and their parents), the return to school is faced with anxiety and dread. This is especially the case for children who struggle with organization and time management – the ones who take twice as long to complete their homework, lose important papers, forget to turn in their work and leave projects until the last minute.

Organization and time management are examples of executive functioning skills. Executive functioning refers to the ability to maintain an appropriate problem solving set for the attainment of a future goal. Executive functioning allows individuals to identify the goal of a problem or task, decide what steps to take, initiate a plan, carry out the plan in a systematic fashion, and determine whether the goal has been reached.

These skills are tied to cognitive development, as they are intertwined with other cognitive skills such as: sustained attention, the ability to engage in future-oriented thinking, considering multiple aspects of a task at one time, and self-monitoring, all of which develop gradually as children mature. While executive functioning skills are linked to cognitive maturity, they also represent a skill set that can be taught. Here are 3 basic strategies for improving executive functioning skills, including organization and time management.

1. Establish Routines: Any new skill set has to be practiced – repeatedly – in order to develop into a habitual behavior. A routine that would help a child who has difficulty getting ready on time in the mornings would include: getting up at the same time every day and going through the same actions in the same order every day (e.g. wash face, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth). A routine that would help a child who loses things would include: having a specific place to put things upon return from school (e.g. pegs for jackets and backpacks, a folder for important papers that a parent has to sign, a bin by the door for soccer cleats and shin guards). The routine should be a simple as possible, and each step should be within the given child’s capabilities.

2. Create Reminders: As new skill sets are being learned, children need supports and reminders to keep them on track. These reminders can be in the form of checklists, a weekly calendar, or an alarm set on an iPod or smart phone. Creating a morning checklist that is placed in a prominent location, for example, can help to insure that the necessary steps to the morning routine get followed. Setting an alarm for when there are 10 minutes left before having to leave for practice can help keep a child focused on getting ready to leave. Parents should also be prepared to support children as they learn to use these tools to help keep themselves organized, in the form of verbal prompts (e.g. “have you checked your list?”) as well as encouragement and positive reinforcement (e.g. “great job getting ready for practice on time”).

3. Plan Ahead: For a child who struggles with executive functioning weaknesses, each new day seems to bring a fresh set of challenges, despite the fact that the exact same challenges were present the day before. Sometimes this happens because of a weakness in working memory skills – these children struggle with trying to hold onto the number of things that they have to do, and the order in which they have to do them. In addition to creating routines and reminders, as discussed above, planning ahead can go a long way towards easing the burden that each new day’s tasks might bring. For example, if the day’s clothes are laid out the night before, the lunch is made and in the fridge, and the completed homework is tucked away in the backpack before bedtime, that greatly reduces the mental workload that is presented each morning.

For more information about executive functioning skills:

For additional ideas on how to support your child’s executive functioning skills (broken down by age):

Activities Guide: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist