Executive Functioning

Helping your child succeed at school: The important role of Executive Functioning

If you are a parent, you most likely want the best possible outcomes for your child in life. While each family is different and has a unique set of family values, generally most parents will agree that they want their children to be competent learners, well behaved and in control of their emotions, capable of forming positive relationships with others and to be socially competent.


A child’s abilities across these different areas of functioning becomes more noticeable when they start school because this is generally the time when they are expected to start demonstrating a range of cognitive and social skills. Although it is quite common to think that a clever child will have better school experiences and outcomes than a child with average or below average intellect, research actually shows that the best predictor of success in school is not intelligence scores (IQ) but rather having capable executive functioning.


What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is a set of mental processes that allow us to link a set of skills developed through past experiences with present action. Basically, it is the Chief Management role of the brain and its job is to integrate a range of mental skills in order to successfully carry out a range of complex tasks.


Executive functioning skills include:

  • planning
  • time management
  • organisation
  • flexibility
  • reflecting on performance
  • self evaluation
  • persistence
  • problem solving
  • engagement in group processes
  • the ability to wait
  • self-correction during a task.


Executive Functioning in Children

For children, executive functioning is necessary for:

  • learning to read and write
  • remembering important steps in maths problems
  • doing their homework
  • planning assignments
  • forming friendships
  • participating in class.

Essentially, executive functioning has an important role in schooling and can assist or impede functioning, depending on a child’s strengths and weaknesses.


Executive functioning skills develop gradually and at different rates for different people. Most children will struggle at one point or another with planning, organisation and/or following through. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism and Learning Disorder nearly always have difficulty with one or more executive functioning skills, which often leads to obstacles in learning and behaviour.


While the list below is by no means diagnostic or pinpoint to a specific problem, it can be helpful to give you some signposts for your observations and a starting point for discussion with school staff or other professionals.


Does Your Child Have Executive Functioning Skills?

In the past 6 months, has your child:

  • had difficulty paying attention?
  • been easily distracted?
  • required many reminders to stay on task?
  • found it difficult to set goals?
  • seemed to struggle with making decisions?
  • had trouble identifying where to start on assignments?
  • focused on either details or the big picture at the expense of the other?
  • had difficulty getting started on tasks, often seeming to procrastinate?
  • struggled to comprehend how much time a project will take to complete?
  • taken longer than peers to complete homework and other tasks?
  • needed numerous prompts from adults to stay on task?
  • lost track of time or assignment due dates?
  • forget to turn in completed work?
  • struggled with keeping track of needed materials; often leaving materials at home or school?
  • found checking his/her work very difficult (and may not do it at all)?
  • had trouble following multiple-step directions?
  • forgot what he/she is saying or doing in the middle of a task?
  • forgot the details of a text while reading or soon after finishing?
  • become frustrated with changes in schedule or usual routines?
  • had difficulty shifting from one activity to another (especially when the rules/task demands change)?
  • struggled with shifting between information that is literal vs. figurative, past vs. present, etc?
  • become stuck on parts of tasks and can’t move forward?
  • seemed to have difficulty controlling impulses—will say or do things without thinking about them first?
  • become easily frustrated?
  • often talked out of turn and/or interrupted others’ conversations?

If you have identified any of the outlined difficulties in the checklist, it may be worth having a chat to your child’s teacher or a professional. By taking the first step and having a discussion about your concerns, you may learn important strategies to facilitate your child’s individual executive functioning strengths and make the necessary adjustments to support their weaknesses, increasing their chances of having a successful schooling experience and better long-term outcomes.




Dawson, P & Guare, R. (2nd Ed). 2010. Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

Jacobson, L.A., Willford, A.P., & Pianta, R.C. (2011). The Role of Executive Function in Children’s Competent Adjustment to Middle School. Child Neuropsychology, 17(3): 255-280. DOI: 10.1080/09297049.2010.535654.

Meltzer, L.J. (2010). Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom. New York: Guilford Press.

Meltzer, L.J. (Ed). (2007). Executive Function in Education: From theory to practice. New York: Guilford Press.E

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