In our first Executive Skills blog, EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS SERIES - PART 1, we met Sally, who possessed average or above average cognitive and academic skills and was highly motivated to succeed. She was organized and goal-driven. At the same time, her social life and grades suffered because she spent hours per night on homework that she didn’t turn in the next day. Like Sally, most of us demonstrate areas of strength and weakness in various skills that allow us to plan and execute projects, prioritize activities and input, identify the steps necessary for a task and monitor progress, understand how time passes and use it to reach our goals, and control emotions and responses to situations.

Research tells us that a number of biological and environmental factors determine how executive skills develop. While response inhibition (impulse control), working memory, emotional control, and attention all tend to develop during the first month of life; metacognition generally emerges closer to 10 or 11 years of age, while the brain is not fully mature until the mid- or late 20’s.

Drs. Dawson and Guare, in their Smart but Scattered books, explain how the number of nerve cells in the brain and connections between them grow rapidly in early childhood. However, this growth, from about 2,500 synapses in a newborn, to around 15,000 over the next three years, slows around age five. A process of pruning ensues, during which skills that are used and practiced are strengthened while others fall away. It is vital that we provide support and instruction to develop lacking skills and maintain those we value, during this time. This process occurs not once during childhood, but rather, “…recent research has demonstrated that there is another major surge in growth of neurons and synapses just before adolescence, followed by a process of pruning that extends throughout adolescence,” according to Dawson and Guare.

The authors of the Smart but Scattered further explain the role of myelination in the development of habits and skills. Myelin is the fatty sheath that forms around axons in the brain. It provides insulation for the paths of the nerve impulses, allowing for more efficient and quicker communication between the parts of the brain. Practice increases myelin, as coaches know. This is why athletes practice the same moves over and over in order to achieve high levels of performance.

To further compound the challenge for middle school and high school students, teenagers are inherently driven to establish their own identities. Often, the skills and experience necessary to accurately judge risk, follow through with tasks independently, and plan and organize materials and projects do not maintain pace with young people’s drive for independence. Of course, this occurs just when academic expectations, homework loads, and social demands increase exponentially in a young person’s life. To support students in this situation, the adults in their lives can collaborate to arrange environments, explicitly teach skills, provide consistent practice during routine activities, and help young people to implement the skills they have learned.

When we provide familiar routines we help our children to use systems of organization and practice strategies. One pitfall that many of us encounter is the tendency to provide initial instruction or support without sufficient monitoring before allowing independent endeavors. Even after independence is achieved with a particular task or skill, periodic check-ins are vital to ensure continued success.

One way to increase a child’s ability to perform a task with accuracy or to follow through with an action, is to utilize mental rehearsal. A practical application is the S.T.O.P method, proposed by Sarah Ward, which supports students like Sally, who complete homework while lacking the follow through to submit it on time. Dawson and Guare suggest various ways to use lists and calendars to support planning, organization, and completion of homework as well.

Keep in mind that it’s natural for adolescents seeking autonomy and developing their individual identities to resist direction from adults, especially parents. Parenting at this stage requires a fine balance of providing choices, setting limits, explicit teaching, gradual release of authority, and use of resources outside ourselves.

Collaboration between school, parents, and other providers such as tutors or coaches can provide consistent reinforcement of strategies and skills, while trained professionals and well-informed parents directly teach executive skills and move young people toward the independence they crave.


Amethyst Shaber teaches us about executive functioning and self-monitoring.

Sarah Ward shares strategies for homework completion and time management.

Smart but Scattered provides homework strategies.

Written by Kerrilee Wing

Executive Functioning Skills Series - Part 1

Sally is a bright student, reading fluently, completing mental math with ease, and spewing articulate and detailed summaries of science and history facts. She invests significant effort into her work and enjoys school. She is so concerned with accuracy that she spends an inordinate amount of time on her homework. However, perfectionism isn’t the only obstacle to Sally completing her work and enjoying family time. She also takes at least 20 minutes to begin her homework, going back and forth between her immaculate desk and well-ordered backpack and her parents’ office to get the supplies for each assignment. During this zig-zag activity, she tells her little brother to stop touching her belongings, pets the dog, gets a snack. Even when her mom or dad check her homework and help her put it into color-coded folders in her backpack, Sally frequently receives only partial credit because it was submitted several days late. Sally’s parents are confused by these inconsistencies and frustrated that Sally’s grades don’t reflect her true ability and knowledge, or the long hours she spends studying. Sally is feeling dejected and the demands of middle school are increasing the time she devotes to school work so much, she may have to quit the volleyball team in order to keep up.

Sally is not unmotivated, nor academically or cognitively challenged. Sally is exhibiting a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the skills necessary to accomplish tasks of which she is entirely capable.

The brain-based skills required to accomplish goals, manage emotions, and interact socially are called by various names, including executive functioning skills, executive skills, essential life skills, and soft skills. They are the practices and skills required to begin, follow-through with, and complete tasks; to manage time, emotions, and responses; and to solve problems.

Amanda Morin names eight executive skills: impulse control, emotional control, flexibility, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. To Morin’s list, Peg Dawson and Richard Guare add time management, sustained attention, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition.

As with language, the potential for executive skills is part of human biology. As with language, the way these skills actually develop varies among individuals. We all exhibit strengths with certain executive skills, while others are weaker and create challenges for us in everyday situations. Drs. Dawson and Guare have created a questionnaire to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses, and they encourage parents to compare their own patterns of skills with those of their children. It is not uncommon for children to mirror their parents’ patterns of development. Since most adults have either developed their weaker skills sufficiently or found compensatory strategies by capitalizing on their strengths, we can share our own experiences to support the young people in our lives. Likewise, if your child struggles in an area that is a natural strength for you, it is vital to appreciate the individual patters we each possess without assuming that certain habits or tasks are equally easy or accessible for everyone.

When Sally took the executive skills questionnaire, it was clear that her ability to hold information in mind while manipulating it was a strength for her, evidenced by her strong reading and math problem-solving skills. Because her metacognition is also strong, she can clearly see that her continued dedication despite feeling chastised for late assignments, and her ability to maintain a tidy work space and use folders effectively coincide with her strengths in emotional control and organization.

It also became clear to both Sally and her parents that task initiation, planning and prioritizing, response inhibition, and goal-directed persistence were areas where Sally needs some support.

The tutors at Peak Academics are trained to help students capitalize on their strengths, make adjustments to the environment to compensate for weaknesses, and further develop executive skills that are lacking or lagging. Through collaboration with parents, we can use coaching, mental rehearsal, and other techniques to address challenges. Everyday routines can be used as a way to teach executive skills, even as we provide support to set goals and develop plans to reach them; monitor performance; help with problem-solving along the way; and gradually develop independence.

The Peak blog next quarter on executive skills will further explore the brain development that contributes to these skills and provide specific strategies for support. To start supporting your child now, check out these resources and contact Peak to learn how we can help!

Understood, where you can find articles about executive skills, learning differences, dyslexia, and attention issues, including articles by Amanda Morin, cited above.

Jason Gots’ article about the Seven Essential Life Skills, provided by bigthink. The article includes a video of Ellen Galinsky explaining executive function life skills and discussing her book, Mind in the Making.

The work of Dr. Peg Dawson and Dr. Richard Guare, including Smart but Scattered and Smart but Scattered Teens.

Drs. Dawson and Guare’s Executive Skills Questionnaire for kids, teens, and adults.

By Kerrilee Wing

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