Planning, beginning, persevering with, and completing tasks require a set of skills known as Executive Functioning (EF) Skills. These include thinking before we act, accessing working memory, controlling emotions, sustaining attention, task initiation, and planning and prioritizing steps in a task. Also included in this cache of skills are organization, time management, flexibility and adaptability, goal-directed persistence, and meta-cognition, according to Dr. Richard Guare. I recently attended a webinar he presented called “Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: Assessment and Intervention Strategies.” 

In an article he has written with Dr. Peg Dawson, Dr. Guare states that, “In many ways, they constitute the hidden curriculum in schools because teachers know that students need them but typically don’t go about teaching them explicitly.” Their article provides many suggestions to support the development of executive functioning skills and to support children who struggle with them. Although these strategies are recommended for use in the classroom and across school settings, parents can utilize many of them during homework and within the daily routine at home.

Most children need help in order to understand routines, organize materials, and identify appropriate behaviors. Dawson and Guare suggest establishing routines and regularly reviewing rules that are explicitly stated. Children need direct instruction in and practice of study skills, such as how to chunk long-term assignments and how to study for tests. You can collaborate with your child’s teacher or tutor to identify preferred methods of organization and studying. For example, some kids remember concepts when they make flash cards that include pictures or diagrams, while others benefit from oral review. Some kids successfully use a school agenda book to record assignments and plan long-term projects, while others need separate notebooks and binders for each subject in order to keep materials and tasks separated and to complete them on time. Most young people need help and reminders, as well as consistency, to develop productive homework habits, such as planning, starting, and persisting to completion of assignments. It’s difficult for kids to tune out distractions and prioritize their school work, so support is needed not only in minimizing distractions but developing habits that put homework before distractions that invariably pop up. One way to encourage accurate completion of homework, as well as develop other skills and habits, is to couple preferred activities with non-preferred activities. It is also important to provide frequent feedback in the form of specific and authentic praise of desired behaviors.

Dr. Lynne Kenney is a pediatric psychologist and author of The Family Coach Method, with a private practice in Scottsdale Arizona. I recently attended a seminar she presented, “Improving Executive Function: Assessment & Better Thinking, Self-Regulation & Academic Success in Children & Adolescents.” One of the most fascinating parts of her presentation was her description of brain development and the activities she identified as supporting executive function development in early childhood.

Dr. Kenney talked about the importance of rhythm and patterns to development of the parts of the brain that have to do with EF. She stated that rhythm is vital to learning, especially in the area of math. Rhythm can involve both fine and gross motor skills, and deficits are common in children who have been diagnosed with specific learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and executive function disorders.

Recognition of patterns begins when infants are two or three months old, when they begin to recognize faces. Pattern recognition is critical to EF. To develop both rhythm and pattern recognition, Dr. Kenney suggested activities such as rolling or bouncing a playground ball or tennis ball to your child, marching, and creating visual patterns or patterns with manipulatives like blocks or beads. Dr. Kenney is a huge proponent of music and play, as well, and specifically suggests instruction in piano or another instrument.

In my next blog, I will present some of the strategies that I learned from Dr. Guare and Dr. Kenney, which have been successful with my own students.r.

Visit any of these resources for more information about executive function and how to develop EF skills.

·      Dr. Lynne Kenney’s blog: http://www.lynnekenney.com/blog/

· “Executive Skills: The Hidden Curriculum” by Dawson and Guare: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/principals/Excutive%20Functioning_NASSP_Mar%2009.pdf

·      More about Dr. Dawson and Dr. Guare: http://www.smartbutscatteredkids.com/About/richard-guare

·   More about music and EF: http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/new-evidence-brain-benefits-music-training-83761

·   Music training and verbal intelligence: http://www.artsedsearch.org/summaries/short-term-music-training-enhances-verbal-intelligence-and-executive-function