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Scattered or Focused? Why Are Executive Functions So Important?

Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous amount of research devoted to very important cognitive abilities responsible for school success. These innate abilities are called executive functions, and they control a person’s ability to stay focused, plan ahead, strategize, and recall information. Some students come by these skills naturally, while others need lots of support.

Does my child need help?

If you are wondering if your child needs help improving their executive functioning skills, take this quick quiz by answering “yes” or “no” to the following questions.

Does your child:

  • Regularly struggle to start tasks?

  • Keeps a messy room and a disorganized backpack, locker, or desk?

  • Have difficulty following instructions, especially with many steps?

  • Fail to complete assignments unless they’re constantly reminded?

  • Forget to turn in homework even when it’s completed?

  • Lose things regularly, from coat to books?

  • Have difficulty planning long-term assignments?

If you answered “yes” to the majority of these questions, your child may lack the internal structure necessary for school success. Here’s how you can provide the external structure to support your child.

Four ways parents can make a difference

1. Get them started. Children with poor executive function skills have difficulty getting themselves started, often because they feel overwhelmed or can’t muster enough energy to get going. You can help by breaking down seemingly large assignments into smaller, more manageable chunks. Be sure your child understands how to do the work before they begin.

2. Create a break menu. By establishing a ‘menu’ of breaks and rewards, your child will be better able to sustain attention while doing homework. On 3×5 cards, list small rewards for your child to choose from after they complete an assignment. Good options include shooting hoops, getting a snack, building with Legos, or playing with a pet. Knowing a break is coming may be just the encouragement your child needs to push through challenging work.

3. Plan ahead. Sit down with your child on a weekly basis to discuss upcoming projects and assignments. Encourage them to look ahead to plan out their week by determining what needs to be accomplished each day. Seeing tasks written out on a calendar will keep your child on track and organized.

4. Take a photograph. Children with poor executive function skills tend to need lots of encouragement to keep their rooms, backpacks, desks, and lockers organized. Take a photo of one of the areas that needs to stay organized. Now post the picture in a highly visible place so your child can refer to it. This way, they will have a frame of reference for what their room or other area should look like when they need to clean it up. Many kids are unable to visualize what ‘clean’ means. With this method, there’s no question about it!

The good news is that executive functioning improves with age. As children mature and develop, so do these important cognitive abilities. As a parent, you can help move the process along a bit faster by modeling organization and planning. Your child will be far more likely to assume these skills when they see you doing much of the same thing. Like the saying goes: “Actions speak louder than words” - especially when it comes to executive functioning.

Ann Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a tutoring, test prep, and consulting company. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make homework less of a chore for the whole family. As seen on Learn more at

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