What Executive Functioning Skills Are & Why Your Kids Need Them
What are the 7 main executive function skills?
- Self-awareness: This executive functioning skill is all about being aware of your body, your place in space, and what you’re doing. Hygiene is a big part of self-awareness. When kids are young, you start by taking them to the dentist and the doctor so they learn to take care of their health. They learn to take regular showers and baths, change the sheets, and not wear clothes that smell dirty.
- Inhibition: This has to do with social skills. You need to know what is socially acceptable, how to communicate, and when to stop talking. Turn-taking is a big one for younger kids.
- Nonverbal working memory: This is your kids’ ability to remember information that isn’t communicated verbally. For example, pictures, faces, songs, and body language.
- Verbal working memory: This is your kids’ ability to remember information that is communicated verbally.
- Self-regulation: This is all about emotion. There’s a theory about teaching kids how to identify how they feel–besides happy and sad. There’s a picture book called The Way I Feel, and it gives kids the language to identify their emotions. This helps them with tantrums and backtalk. If you give the kids the words they need, a lot of the emotional regulation will smooth out. It’s identifying the emotion, how to move through the emotion, and then how to come back to the family or the group of friends.
- Planning: I saved my two favorites for last! These two are what organizing is all about. This is why I talk about executive functioning skills–because they all go hand-in-hand.
- Problem-solving: This piece is so important for organizing! Figuring out where things go, what should go with what, and thinking spatially.
Routines teach executive functioning skills.
I talk a lot about the importance of routines for kids and adults. They not only make your life easier in the long run, but they also help build your kids’ executive functioning skills. Routines build their nonverbal working memory, planning & problem solving, and self-regulation. Often routines have to do with hygiene too! Self-awareness, check!!
Mealtime is a good opportunity for kids to learn the skills.
Meals require a lot of self-awareness. Kids need to be aware of the food on their faces and of others at the table. If your kids make a big mess, don’t be the first one to jump up and help. Make your kids do it so they learn how. Instead, to help, I tell our kiddos what to do, one step at a time–this helps it feel less overwhelming for them and teaches them emotional regulation.
Independent play and decision making can be used to practice.
Your kids will learn inhibition, self-regulation, problem-solving, and planning. They can play by themselves, come up with games, and learn to create order with their toys. With back-to-school, it’s a great time to have your kids set up their space the way they want it. Don’t interject, don’t give your thoughts. If they ask, give them options and put the decision on them. Have them problem solve. If your kids haven’t done this before, don’t rush it. It might not happen in one day.
Teaching kids executive functioning skills takes time.
Teaching these skills takes some of your time. You have to realize that your kid is going to do this, and they are capable of doing this. You need to let them plan, explore, and problem-solve to figure it out. It’s hard to let go.
Tips for teaching:
- Ask questions instead of commanding: “Are you watching where you’re going?” instead of “Watch where you’re going!”
- Use positive words instead of negative ones. The more positive it is, the more positive self-talk they’ll have for themselves. Plus it won’t give them a negative connotation around these skills.
- Coach your kids before they are in new situations. For example, when a new neighbor moves in, you can prompt your kids with some questions that they might ask to make a new friend.
- Use pneumonic devices to teach names.
- To teach verbal working memory, break it down. Be specific and break the process down to one or two steps at a time.