| by Thuy Truong, M.A. Ed., TPT Teaching and Coaching, 9/20/2021|
Executive function skills are an essential component for daily life, academic performance, and workplace success. They are skills one needs to get things done like planning, organization, and following through. Because students who need executive skills enrichment fall on a spectrum (the degree of dysfunction differs from person to person), and it takes time to get them to acclimate with the skills until they become well-versed in its implementation. Each executive skill is related to several others, so early practice and gradual rigor make it easier for the student to comprehend and execute to set the building blocks in motion. Below are the core executive skills that should be leveraged and practiced during a specific stage in your child's development.
Essential EF Skills for Elementary School Students To Practice:
-Same bedtime and wake-up time daily: The clearest indicator that a student understands structured time is following the same bedtime and wake-up time. This builds self-discipline and self-control in a child early on. This will help your student learn taking care of yourself is a form of planning ahead for academic success, but it also helps develop time awareness and mental alertness.
-Using a paper planner: One of the best ways to help a student visualize time and structure would be to start them on a planner early. It helps students to get used to the idea that certain things happen at certain time for a certain duration. No matter how simple, help your child actually write specific tasks that happen at specific time inside the planner. For example: 9a-2:30p: School time. Teach them how to use the planner.
-Planning a weekly/monthly schedule on a bulletin board: To compliment the paper planner, it also helps to externalize a highly visual weekly or monthly overview. It is helpful to use a tool to show the student the broad overview of their upcoming week or month. That way, there is no surprise and the student is exposed to the skill of organization. Bottom line: let the student physically write in the actual words of what will actually go down each day in their life.
-Brili App timer: Brili is an app that times every task your child is assigned to do with fun music and sound affirmations. It has a parent control feature for you to customize the to-do checklist that your child needs to complete as daily routines such as "Morning Routine."
-Document small victories: An effective way to help boost young child's self-esteem is helping them learn about their innate strengths so they can leverage it and use them as coping skills to persevere when challenges emerge. Writing down small victories demonstrate to young students the power of personal character and positivity. And this goes a long way in lifelong learning.
-Learn from mistakes: Relearning is a major skill in the digital age. Students should be accustomed to learning from their past experiences and mistakes. Young children cannot do this alone; they need guidance from adults in the form of constructive conversations. Parents can facilitate a discussion, but let the student implement and write down what they will do differently next time if a similar situation emerges.
Essential EF Skills for Middle School Students to Practice:
-Learn to negotiate privileges with parents: According to research, students with executive dysfunction have a hard time learning social pragmatics and acceptable behaviors in a social setting (Understood.org). A practical way to help your student build this skill is to provide opportunities for them to explain why and promote household discussions in the form of friendly negotiations around privileges, responsibilities, and chores. It can become a training ground for learning social skills and society's unwritten rules when opportunities currently don't often exist outside the home.
-Make clear transition plans to switch gear between academic and non-academic tasks: Switching gears is often difficult for students who need executive function support. Hence, it is useful to give them a go-to survival toolkit. Even something as simple as prompting them to lay out their soccer uniform the night before can help them transition quickly after school where they have soccer practice. Never underestimate teaching the skills we take for granted with students.
-Follow through protocol: Teaching your student how to follow through is huge, starting with the everyday things translate well into academics once they get the concept of what following through really means. For instance, if they promise to help grandpa with cleaning out the attic, then right away have them write that in their personal planner and plug it on the large bulletin board. It's about action; the student has to learn how to act on their commitments.
-Keep a success journal: In order to leverage one's natural strengths, one has to reflect to gain self-awareness. Students can learn more about their innate strengths through journal reflection. The benefit in this is increased self-worth and confidence through introspection that makes solving future challenges easier because students will remember their positive traits to build a healthy internal monologue and thereby overcome adversity.
-Do one small part of a family event/chore: Contrary to popular belief, students learn a lot when they are put in charge. Of course, parents might need to consider the right workload of responsibility for their age and disposition before assigning. Students learn best by doing, so delegating a small portion of the family responsibilities for them to practice is ideal for hands-on learning. For example, if it's a family picnic, you might consider putting your middle school child in charge of creating a list of eating utensils and you ask the child to present the list when you go grocery shopping for the picnic (co-write the list together is a plus). That way, the child can experience the whole process from planning to execution. Then, they can say to themselves, so that is how you get something done from start to finish.
-Tidy bedroom 15 minutes a day: Another practical way to help students learn organization is to give them points or earn rewards for keeping their room neat and tidy always. It sends the message of self-sufficiency, and they know how to slice work out to prevent work from building up.
Essential EF Skills for High School Students to Practice:
-Set time boundaries in Google calendar: If a student had habituated to a fixed bedtime and wake-up time since elementary school, then it will be a natural transition for them to set time boundaries in high school. For instance, a time boundary may be always starting homework at 3:45pm sharp and finish around 6:45p no matter what happens during that time, the student is in the habit of honoring that time for academic purposes. The values in time blocking are self-discipline, clarity, and purpose.
-Keep a whiteboard monthly calendar: Externalizing all deadlines on a large calendar that provides a monthly overview help the student to look ahead to see the bigger picture and resolve future schedule conflicts well in advance, which is key for efficiency and speed in time management.
-Follow a morning routine: Take comfort in routines and the familiar. It could be something like wake up, 15-minute walk, shower, breakfast, start work. It builds confidence, and it makes task transitions much easier for your child. Ultimately, the student learns how to create the optimal environment emotionally and physically to perform their best.
-Utilize a personal mantra to veer off stress: Adopting a personal mantra as a coping mechanism has been proven to improve cognitive function, sustained attention, working memory as well as aggression (American Psychological Association, 2021). Give your student the confidence to navigate school and life with a positive self-talk.
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-Cap off the number of after school activities: Although it is sensible to keep your child active and highly engaged in extracurricular activities, too many supplement activities may give your child the message school is not too important altogether and it may also over-exhaust your child leaving them with no mental energy left to give their best to academics. It may be worthwhile to consider the maximum activities that your child can engage in within an academic semester/year. Alternatively, reserve summertime as a leisurely time to explore additional hobbies and interests that won't interfere with academics. One of the most valuable skills you can teach your child is having realistic expectations and not over-commit, these are prerequisite skills leading to autonomy and independence.
-Plan out the upcoming week every Saturday: One of the most powerful skills to learn in the spirit of college preparation is planning ahead. Get your student in the habit of taking 30-45 minutes every weekend to plan ahead in order to create structure and clarity for the upcoming week. Organization is the undercurrent for confidence.
The key to strengthen executive function skills at every age is introducing the child to the core skill sets and helping the child take ownership of implementing that skill early on. Equally important, the parent should create valuable opportunities in a daily context where the child can execute the skills and hence over time it will become automatic. Implementation and consistency will gradually transform your child's executive function repertoire.
Thuy Truong, M.A. Ed.
I am a licensed professional educator, executive function expert, former tenured high school teacher and college instructor with 16 years experience. I am also a student success designer. I enjoy recognizing the missing puzzle in the student's learning and personalizing that solution in a language that is unique to that student. I love the creative challenge of inventing a new language
for every child.