Are Weak Executive Function Skills Holding Your Child Back?

Are Weak Executive Function Skills Holding Your Child Back?

Are school mornings a scene of chaos in your home in order to be ready on time? Does your child arrive at school without lunch or sporting gear for the day? Are simple things such as writing down homework and keeping track of school supplies getting in the way of your child’s academic achievement?

Do you wonder how your smart, talented child can be so scattered? In some cases, lagging executive function skills may be the cause.

So what are executive function skills?

Our brain is the CEO in charge of a complex set of mental skills known as executive function. These skills help us link what we have done in the past with planning, prioritizing, and doing subsequent tasks.

There are five (5) main executive function skills:

  • Inhibition – being able to resist doing something without thinking it through first.
  • Working Memory – being able to hold information in memory and do something with it e.g. hear some numbers and then say them backwards
  • Flexibility/Shifting – being able to shift from an original idea/plan when faced with obstacles, new information or mistakes
  • Planning and Organizing – being able to carry out steps according to goals set (planning) while arranging/ rearranging details or steps to follow a plan to achieve a task. (organizing)
  • Self-Regulation/Monitoring – being able to control feelings and behaviour in order to achieve goals and complete tasks. (Obermeyer, 2018)

What can parents do to help?

Parents can help by staying positive and using areas of strength to compensate while specifically working on skills that are lacking. Some suggestions are:

Teach deficient skills according to age/ability level. Be realistic in what tasks you choose to teach your child. Modify tasks to make them more manageable. For example, sit down and write out a bedroom routine checklist with your child and use it until it is no longer needed.

Use incentives in addition to your instruction. Some children find achieving a task motivating enough. For others, praise or points towards a valued reward may work better.

Provide just enough support for your child to be successful. Stand back and see what parts of the task they can do, and support only as necessary. Ask them their opinion about what the stumbling blocks are. Work out what support they need e.g. model what to do, giving clear verbal steps and/or physical hand over hand assistance.

Keep supports and supervision in place until the task is automatic. Fade out your support gradually and only remove it when the child can do the task without thinking.  There is danger in stopping supervision too soon. (Dawson & Guare, 2015).

Provide items that help with executive function

Modifying the environment or the task can really help.

Add colour – colour code everything to help organise e.g.  filing system with different colour for each subject, different coloured bags for sport, library books.

Double up – have backups of things needed (consider op-shop purchases for spare shoes, school items)

Make it big – favour large, obvious items such as large keychain

Attach it  – attach important items such as a bus travel pass, or laminated cue cards for items to put in the backpack using a ring and clip system

What can occupational therapy offer?

Occupational therapists are experts in addressing functional cognitive problems which affect performance of daily skills. We use a number of assessment strategies to find out your child’s relative strengths and weaknesses in executive function. These may include you and your child’s teacher completing a rating scale about executive functional skills, and in some cases using an evidence-based kitchen task assessment. The evidence suggests that performance-based assessments are valuable in really understanding what the problem is rather than just assessments that don’t generalize to real life.

OT intervention depends on the child’s age. For school aged children, we use a Goal-Plan-Do-Check approach. This evidence-based intervention method helps a child to learn to set a Goal, Plan out the task, Do it in the real situation and Check whether it worked. This thinking sequence can be generalized to new tasks. This empowers the child to solve problems increasingly by themselves and increases overall resilience to deal with other obstacles in life.

Contact AIM OT on (08) 6150 8339 if you would like to arrange an assessment for your child.


Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009) The Smart but Scattered Child: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. Guildford Press: USA

Obermeyer, I. (2018) Executive Function for School-Age Students SIS Quarterly Practice Connections, 3(4), pp 2-5.