Executive Functioning Skills – Concrete Tips to Help Your Child Organize, Time-Manage and Plan

executive functioning skills

The following information is all from the excellent work of Speech-Language Pathologists: Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen

On Thursday night I had the great pleasure of attending a very informative workshop on  Developing Independent Executive Function Skills with Sarah Ward.  She is a Speech Language Pathologist and has a daughter with Dyslexia and ADHD so she has also had a lot of at-home, real life practice developing executive function skills. 

What Are Executive Functioning Skills?

Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that allow all of us to plan, organize, manage our time and have self-control. They are not correlated to IQ and for children with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, there is a deficit in the development of executive functioning skills.

How Can We Improve Executive Functioning Skills?

Decrease Multi-Tasking

We all know that multi-tasking is not good for us, nor efficient, but Sarah explained that it has actually caused our volume of working memory to decrease.  We used to be able to remember 7 pieces of information (such as a phone number) and now, on average, adults can only remember 4 pieces of information and children can only remember 3!

The average teen is surrounded by three screens when working on homework:  TV, computer, phone, ipad, ipod etc.

Find Out Our Child/Teen’s Executive Functioning Developmental Age

Sarah asked us to think of a child, and look at his/her chronological age and see if it matches their EF developmental age.  You can find that checklist for 3 year olds to high schoolers here. 

If you don’t think your child can manage the tasks in his/her EF age category, then go to the next lowest age range and see if he/she can manage those tasks.  Keep going until you find the range where your child is and then work on mastering those tasks. 

Change Our Language from Giving Directions to Prompting Problem-Solving

Often we don’t allow our children’s working memory the time to practice because we act as their frontal lobe for them. 

For example, if our child has soccer, we tend to remind them that they have soccer, then while they slowly get dressed, we run around getting their water bottle, finding their soccer boots etc. 

Ideally, we need to be able to say our child’s name and remind them what day of the week it is.  If our child has well-developed EF skills, he/she will hear that it’s Wednesday and create a mental image of him/her playing soccer and then go and get the necessary items and gear to be ready.

The key is to be able to create the mental image of this future image and then prep from there. 

Sarah recommend that we take a photo on our phone of our child all ready for school, or an activity such as soccer, and then when we need our child to get ready, we show him/her the photo and say “match this” or “this is what ready looks like”.  (She also recommended the following two apps for making visuals:  Strip Design and Skitch.)

*By showing a visual image, we activate the non-verbal working memory first and then the verbal working memory as the child talks him/herself through what he/she needs to do.

If we create a morning checklist of “get ready for school” tasks we are accessing the verbal working memory first and this won’t be as effective.  This was new and important information for me.  We need to help our children create the visual of the end goal in their mind first and then have the self-talk follow, as to how to get to the end goal.

Some questions we can say to prompt our children to problem-solve vs. follow directions:

  • What do you look like if you’re ready to go to school?
  • I see your towel is on the floor.
  • I notice all the kids are putting on their skates.
  • Before you go upstairs, imagine which drawers you will open to find your field hockey clothes.

By using this kind of language, we help our children to develop a visual image, and from there they can then talk themselves through the next steps.

Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen have written this excellent article about Staying A Beat Ahead which you can find here. (This article summarizes a lot of the presentation.)

Use An Analog Clock vs. Digital Clock

Again, when we think of the importance of visuals, we now realize why an analog clock explains time much better than a digital clock.  As we’ve become more digitalized, we’ve lost track of the passage of time and many children don’t know how to read an analog clock.

In the above article, Staying A Beat Ahead, Sarah and Kristen explain the strategy in detail.  The quick summary is to buy an analog non-ticking clock, with a metal frame and glass front.  (She told us that Ikea sells them and she sells them on her website along with time-marker magnets that stick to the outside of the clock).  One analog clock goes on the wall of your home and the other is a used as a portable working clock.  With this clock, you give your children a whiteboard marker, and ask them to shade in the time from starting point to end point so they have a visual to see how much time they have before they have to complete the task, such as going out the door to an activity.  (As long as the clock is glass, the whiteboard marker will erase).

Create a Job Title vs. Give Directions

Add “er” to the task!

Instead of “Brush your teeth” ….”Be a toothbrusher!”

Instead of “Make your bed”… “Be a bedmaker!”

Now that we know the importance of creating a visual image, we can see how adding “er” to the task to create a job title, helps to create a mental image.

I hope that this article helps you have a more clear understanding of how executive functioning skills develop.  To learn more from Sarah, she’s coming back to Vancouver this Spring, May 3-4, for a two day workshop which will definitely sell-out!  It should be amazing and it’s for parents and educators.  Although the workshop is being hosted by ACT, it is not an Autism-specific event.  However, there is a special discount for parents who have a child with Autism.  You can find out more about this two day workshop and register here.  Also, please read below to find out more about our clinic and Dyslexia BC hosting the viewing of the award winning documentary –  The Big Picture produced by James Redford.


executive functioning skills

 PS. Registration is now open for my next round of Self-Empowerment Groups for children ages 7-9 years and 10-12 years.  In this six week group, we cover topics such as self-regulation, social dynamics, communication skills, perspective taking, optimism vs. pessimism.  You can find out more and register by clicking here and then going to “upcoming groups/events”

PPS.  The ABLE Developmental Clinic and Dyslexia BC are excited to present The Big Picture Documentary film about Dyslexia.  I’m really looking forward to seeing this film. It will be shown at the North Shore Unitarian Church in West Vancouver on November 15th from 7-8:30pm.  After the film, we will be having a Q & A discussion period from 8-8:30pm with Dr. Glen Davies, psychologist and director of The ABLE Clinic.  Tickets cost $10.  Please click here to register.

The Award winning Documentary was Produced by James Redford and there is medical input provided by Dr. Sally Shaywitz from the Yale Center for Dyslexia. The Movie features Dylan Redford , a high school senior on his way to college and several successful leaders (such as Richard Branson and Charles Schwab).

The Big Picture is an inspiring documentary for Parents, Teachers and Children (Ages 10 yrs. and older) to promote education and understanding about Dyslexic learning styles. The Movie is 52 minutes long and outlines some of the strengths that lead many Dyslexics to success and also identifies many of the challenges that face Dyslexics every day.

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