Executive Function Skills

What are they and why do they matter?

The Role of Executive Function Skills in Children and Adolescents


The term “executive function” has been around for quite some time, but until more recent years this disorder has been grossly under-identified. When a child was once labeled “ADHD”, they now may be diagnosed with an Executive Function Disorder.

To execute means to “carry out” or “put into effect”

If you think about what it means to “execute” something, you can begin to infer what disruptions in this brain process may look like. I like to think of your executive functioning skills as the “mother board” of our day-to-day task management and completion. Some of the steps needed to complete any task include analyzing what the task is, planning how you are going to execute the task, organizing how you will complete the task, develop some sort of a timeline on how long it will take to complete, make adjustments as needed, and then of course complete the task. Here is the kicker, a lot of this stuff we do in our heads! Not to mention, children that struggle with to efficiently and accurately execute their executive function skills also struggle with their working memory, emotional control and even mental flexibility.

What can be characterized as a “task”? When you begin to look at almost anything and everything as a task, you will then understand how much difficulty one may have if they struggle in the area of executive function. Tasks my include: Cleaning a room, going to the grocery store, writing a paper, homework completion, arriving to an event on time, following a recipe, learning how to eat with a spoon, researching information, etc. You get the point. If it requires an idea, or “vision” of how/when/where/why something needs to get done, you better believe it involves your executive functioning skills.

Let’s paint a picture

Sarah is a 14-year-old-female who struggles in school. She gets good grades, but must work exceptionally hard to maintain them. A homework assignment that should take 15 minutes takes her at least an hour. She forgets to read the directions, and then has to start all over again. She forgot to write the due date in her planner, so she really has no idea when it needs to be done. If she had wrote in her planner, she would have realized the assignment isn’t due for a few more days while she has a more important assignment due the following day. When she finally completes the assignment, she doesn’t bother to proofread what she has done, and subsequently skipped over several questions. She places the completed project in her binder, but because her binder lacks organization, she will likely not be able to find it in a few days when she needs to turn it in. When she has do to a group project, she fails miserable. She has a hard time recognizing what her role is in the project, and struggles to communicate what she needs to do to complete the portion assigned on her end. She misses timelines within her group and isn’t organized enough, so her groups feels annoyed. Sarah has a hard time processing why her group is annoyed, and gets “stuck” thinking about it all day. Her parents are extremely frustrated, but, because Sarah does not have failing grades, the school doesn’t see that there is a problem. Does Sarah sound familiar?

Executive functioning deficits can go more under the radar at a younger age, but once a child reaches middle school and still struggles, parents begin to hit a wall of frustration. So, what can you do?

Ways to encourage executive function skills

From an early age, begin to think about play skills that may help your child develop their critical thinking skills.For infants, you can hide objects under blankets or pillows and have them try to find them. Fingerplay songs develop a sense of memory and anticipation. For your toddler, frequently introduce them to new “skills” like walking on a beam or jumping into a hula hoop with one foot. Children love challenges, and new skills force them to sustain attention and keep trying, even when failing! As your child ages, you should also begin to openly discuss feelings. Talk out-loud while you are planning something, this is a great way to model how to self-regulate and plan. For your older child? Try card games or fast moving games like dodge ball. You can also begin to introduce them to logic and reasoning board games. Remember, don’t just give them the answers! You want your child to go through the process of figuring things out. For adolescents, focus on goal planning and achieving. Perhaps they can help organize and plan their own birthday party or family gathering.  You can also regularly work with your adolescent on self-monitoring skills “Am I on task?”, “Am I on time?”, “Am missing anything?”.  So often we forget that we need to model these skills and explicitly teach them to our children.

Once you begin to understand how your executive function skills play a role in your own life, you will more easily be able to recognize them in your child’s life. Remember, it is okay for your child to learn through failure!

And, as always, at Metro East Therapy we are happy to work with you and your child on any difficulties you may be struggling to overcome. You can find more information here: How Metro East Therapy can help

I hope you enjoyed,


Maggie Block, M.A. CCC-SLP, CDP

Speech Language Pathologist/Certified Dyslexia Practitioner