Executive Function Skills in Children: Why They Matter and How to Improve Them

Executive Function Skills in Children: Why They Matter and How to Improve Them

girl looks interested and engaged while getting tutoring help at Fit Learning, where our method strengthens critical thinking skills

Have you noticed that your learner seems particularly disorganized? … rarely plans ahead and has a hard time staying on track? … has trouble getting started with (and completing) tasks or assignments … struggles with managing impulses or emotions … has difficulty recalling what was covered in class … often misplaces or loses assignments or schoolwork?

Defining Executive Functioning

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, it may be a sign that your child has executive functioning issues. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation as “a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control,” pointing out that “children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.” The Center likens executive functioning to air traffic control in that “being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways.”

More specifically, child psychologist Dr. Russell Barkley breaks down the seven main executive function skills as following:

  • Planning and problem-solving
  • Motivation regulation
  • Emotion regulation
  • Verbal working memory
  • Nonverbal working memory
  • Inhibition
  • Self-awareness

While executive function deficits are often seen in people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, and slow processing speed, they are not the same. Many people who do not have a diagnosis struggle with executive function issues in their daily life.

Why Executive Functioning Matters

discouraged-looking student with ADHD and weak executive functioning skills who would benefit from Fit Learning's research-based methodExecutive dysfunction can make school (and learning) quite challenging for students. And since executive function impacts how a person interacts with others, a deficit can also lead to social problems such as difficulty fitting in with peers, behaving inappropriately, being unable to self-regulate, and missing social cues. Which can in turn lead to depression and low self-confidence in kids.

Research has shown that a person’s executive function is one of the most significant predictors of their future academic and even economic success. It’s more impactful, in fact, than IQ, test scores, and socioeconomic status. Therefore it’s important to address a learner’s executive function deficit as early as possible.

Improving Your Learner’s Executive Function Skills

Fortunately, there are things that can be done to improve executive function in children. Parents are encouraged to work closely with teachers to arrange for the needed accommodations in the school environment. Just a few classroom strategies include:

  • using visual and aural (hearing) reminders, to help with memory overload
  • shortening homework assignments
  • supplying instruction in a way that is clear and explicit
  • ensuring access to healthy snacks
  • breaking tasks into smaller chunks
  • incorporating lots of practice with instruction
  • scheduling brain breaks
  • working in a quiet environment with minimal distraction
  • training toward fluency, not just accuracy (this blog post discusses how they differ)
  • using “fun” tools like phone apps to track due dates and progress toward completion

For additional suggestions, check out ADDitude Magazine’s Executive Function Worksheet and the Child Mind Institute’s School Success Kit for Kids With Executive Functioning Issues.

Fit Learning’s Method Strengthens Executive Functioning

But parents don’t have to go it alone; Fit Learning can help. In fact, Fit’s core approach – including its multimodal technique, use of explicit instruction, and focus on fluency – is particularly effective at improving learners’ executive functioning. Because it’s not just about what skills are taught, it’s also how they are taught.

The Fit Logic curriculum provides executive function coaching around the following skills:

  • Planning: the ability to think ahead and organize and prioritize actions necessary to reach a goal
  • Problem-solving: the ability to first identify a problem and then develop a strategy to solve it
  • Working memory: the ability to remember specific short-term memories needed to execute a function or daily task
  • Attention: the ability to focus and recall from short-term memory (closely tied to the skill of working memory)
  • Reasoning: the ability to understand, analyze and think critically about ideas, and then be able to use the information
  • Cognitive flexibility: the ability to think on your feet

Fluency Training Provides Long-Term Benefitssmiling boy holding a book, happy to have stronger executive function skills from tutoring at Fit Learning

By strengthening executive functioning skills through fluency training, Fit’s method improves learners’ overall agility, or cognitive fitness. This means that students not only learn the academic material at hand, but also are better equipped to continue learning as the concepts become more advanced. In her book Blind Spots: Why  Students Fail … and the Science That Can Save Them, Fit Learning cofounder Kimberly Nix Berens writes, “The more fluent learners become, the better they get at learning in general … We have discovered that learners begin achieving fluency on new skills more quickly as a function of their achieving fluency on prerequisite skills. We have also discovered that accuracy improves more quickly, learners show less variability in performance on new skills, and learners begin engaging in the performance of more complex skills with little to no training required.” This enhanced ability to learn gets to the heart of why executive functioning is so critical in all aspects of life, not just academics. So, regardless of whether your child is getting tutored at Fit in math, reading, writing, or logic, they are being taught using a method that will strengthen their foundational executive functioning skills and prepare them for the future.

Get Executive Functioning Coaching at Fit Learning

It’s easy to get started at Fit Learning and help boost your learner’s executive functioning. Just reach out to Janice Smith, director of the Fit St. Louis learning lab, to set up an intake assessment. When your child starts instruction at Fit, you can be confident that they are making gains that will help truly transform their learning … and their future.

Everyone Benefits From Enhanced Executive Functioning

All kinds of learners benefit from Fit’s instruction, including:

  • Children who are struggling academically in general or with a specific subject area
  • Students who aren’t struggling but want to prevent summer slide or skill regression
  • Gifted learners who are seeking further challenge or enrichment
  • Students who are homeschooled or whose parents are considering homeschooling
  • Children diagnosed with learning disabilities, learning differences, special education needs, ADHD, dyslexia, slow processing speed, speech/language delays, or who are on the autism spectrum.
  • Pre-K children for overall school readiness

And, Fit offers instruction in a variety of subject areas, including reading, writing, math, logic, spelling, penmanship, and kindergarten readiness. Also available are dedicated curricula for homeschoolers, academic summer camp, and a program for those who prefer to learn online versus in person.

Reach out to us and get started today!