The FUN in Executive FUNction

Have you ever heard someone say that your brain is not fully developed until age 25? When someone mentions that, it’s usually to explain how teenagers can still make risky decisions, even when they feel like near adults because their “decision making warehouse” in their brain is still making new connections. That’s true! The frontal lobe of your brain is responsible for many of your executive functioning skills! So, what does that have to do with your child? Executive functioning skills that are required for all those complex adult decisions begin with foundational skills that emerge in early childhood that are necessary for your child to pay attention, finish tasks by themselves, and stay in control of their body and reactions. All children need to develop well-rounded executive functioning skills for success in the classroom and at home.

What are executive functioning skills?

Executive functioning refers to a complex collection of skills across areas of neuropsychological development that include how your child’s brain is able to focus on one subject, plan ahead, organize, follow steps in order, follow familiar routines, have self-awareness, hold thoughts in our memory, switch between activities, and control our responses to events. In general, executive functioning skills are responsible for our general external and internal organizational and attentional processing. In general, executive functioning skills help us make a decision or goal, plan how to achieve that goal, carry out the steps in the plan, and check that we were able to do it right.

What does it look like when a child has difficulty with executive functioning skills?

Executive functioning develops typically in children who are participating in learning opportunities with gradually decreased support from an adult, everyday social interactions, games that challenge inhibition or memory, and lots of trial and error with activities. Early signs of difficulty with executive functioning skills may look like any of the following:

  • Having difficulty staying on task and avoiding distractions
  • Becoming easily frustrated, at times resulting in outbursts
  • Needing frequent reminders to slow down with work or think before acting
  • Forgetting directions almost immediately
  • Skipping steps from directions with more than one step
  • Trouble getting started with instructions or finding the materials they need for an activity
  • Disorganized when re-telling a story or event that happened
  • Getting stuck on one idea, or becomes frustrated when having to transition from one activity to another
  • Needing more reminders to complete daily routines than same-aged peers
  • Difficulty adjusting to in the moment changes

What can I do to support my child’s executive functioning?

Infancy:

  • Anticipation games such as peekaboo, “1-2…….3!” with any silly action, and this little piggy
  • Pausing during their favorite familiar fingerplay song for them to fill in the blank with a gesture or word
  • Hiding games with their favorite toys to search beneath a cup or cloth for them

Toddlers:

  • Increasing gross motor challenges such as a one-step obstacle course for them to control their bodies during movement
  • Movement songs and dances that they can follow along with and remember all the steps
  • Exposure to emotion words such as happy, mad, sad, and scared on themselves and on characters in books
  • Completing simple matching puzzles or sorting games

Early Childhood:

  • Have your child “read” a familiar story to you while looking at the pictures
  • Play freeze dance
  • Sing backward counting songs such as the three little ducks and have the child keep track of how many ducks are left
  • Play games where your child has to identify which object is not like the others

School Age:

  • Help follow simple cold meal recipes with a plan ahead of time. Your child can help gather the materials and put them together in the provided order.
  • Play games such as Spot it, Quick Cups, and cooperative board games
  • Play Red Light, Green Light, Musical Chairs, or Simon says to increase the child’s attention and impulse control
  • Play games such as Guess Who, where your child has to keep track of characteristics already said

Executive functioning challenges are common in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, anxiety disorders, and learning disabilities. However, not all children with difficulties in these areas may have one of those diagnoses. If your child is demonstrating persistent problems with some of the skills above, consider contacting one of our occupational therapists, who can provide your family with helpful tips and tricks to build your child’s executive functioning skills.

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s executive functioning skills, please contact us at info@playworkschicago.com or 773-332-9439.

Caroline Stevens, MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist

References:

Center on the Developing Child. (2020). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Enhancing-and-Practicing-Executive-Function-Skills-with-Children-from-Infancy-to-Adolescence-1.pdf

Cramm, H., Krupa, T., Missiuna, C., Lysaght, R., & Parker, K. (2013). Broadening the Occupational Therapy Toolkit: An Executive Functioning Lens for Occupational Therapy With Children and Youth. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from https://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=1863088

Photo Credit: Olav Ahrens Rotne via https://unsplash.com

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