Why Are Executive Functions So Important?

by Ann Dolin, M.Ed.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous amount of research devoted to very important cognitive abilities responsible for school success. These innate abilities are called executive functions and they control a person’s ability to stay focused, plan ahead, strategize, and recall information. Some students come by these skills naturally, while others need lots of support.

Does My Child Need Help?

If you are wondering if your child needs help improving his executive functioning skills, take this quick quiz by answering “yes” or “no” to the following questions. Does your child…

  • Regularly struggles to start tasks?
  • Keep a messy room and a disorganized backpack, locker, or desk?
  • Have difficulty following instructions, especially with many steps?
  • Fail to complete assignments unless he’s constantly reminded?
  • Forget to turn in homework even when it’s completed?
  • Lose things regularly, from coat to books?
  • Have difficulty planning long-term assignments?

If you answered “yes” to the majority of these questions, your child may lack the internal structure necessary for school success. Here’s how you can provide the external structure to support your child.

4 Ways Parents Can Make a Difference

  • Get Him Started — Children with poor executive function skills have difficulty getting themselves started, often because they feel overwhelmed or can’t muster enough energy to get going. You can help by breaking down seemingly large assignments into smaller, more manageable chunks. Be sure he understands how to do the work before he begins.
  • Create a Break Menu — By establishing a “menu” of breaks and rewards, your child will be better able to sustain attention while doing homework. On 3×5 cards, list small rewards for your child to chose from after he completes an assignment. Good options include shooting hoops, getting a snack, building with Legos, or playing with a pet. Knowing a break is coming may be just the encouragement he needs to push through challenging work.
  • Plan Ahead — Sit down with your child on a weekly basis to discuss upcoming projects and assignments. Encourage him to look ahead to plan out his week by determining what needs to be accomplished each day. Seeing tasks written out on a calendar will keep him on track and organized.
  • Take a Photograph — Children with poor executive function skills tend to need lots of encouragement to keep their rooms, backpacks, desks, and lockers organized. Take a photo of the one area that needs to stay organized. Now, post the picture in a highly visible place so your child can refer to it. This way, he will have a frame of reference for what his room or other area should look like when he needs to clean it up. Many kids are unable to visualize what “clean” means. With this method, there’s no question about it!

The good news is that executive functioning improves with age. As children mature and develop, so do these important cognitive abilities. As a parent, you can help move the process along a bit faster by modeling organization and planning. Your child will be far more likely to assume these skills when they see you doing much of the same thing. Like the saying goes, “actions speaks louder than words” — especially when it comes to executive functioning.


Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a tutoring, test prep, and consulting company in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make homework less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at anndolin.ectutoring.com or ectutoring.com.

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