The Essential skills of Executive Functioning


Executive functioning skills include planning, organizing, prioritizing, self-checking, shifting are critical to children’s school performance.

The era of online learning or a mix of online and offline learning requires a student to know how they learn, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. There are critical skills that fit under the umbrella of “executive functioning” skills.

Executive functioning broadly refers to the skills which help you learn. To have strong executive functioning means that you can better learn to learn new information – you can organize your materials, your time, you use strategies to help you remember content and help you focus when you need to.

Children with executive functioning weaknesses are inefficient in their work, have difficulty showing what they can do, perform less well than expected in exams, forget key equipment at school, and/or have difficulty remembering key vs. erroneous information. Their problems tend to get worse as children progress beyond primary school, into middle and high school. Without remedial support, their issues can continue into adulthood. In fact, all teens can benefit from executive functioning assessment and training.

We can train children, especially they are entering adolescence, how to enhance their executive functioning skills. In fact almost all teens, and many adults, would benefit from learning about, and training in, executive functioning skills.

It pays to, firstly, access individuals executive functioning skills. Usually, a Likert scale or simple yes/no questions can help assess which areas are most in need of advice or improvement. I usually recommend that children under 12 complete the assessment in collaboration with their parents as one of their key areas of difficult is really understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Teens are usually mature and more self-aware so may be able to complete the assessment on their own. At RED DOOR, we use a special Likert type scale to assess executive functioning skills. Improving these skills should help our students become better learners.

Skill areas included in the area of Executive Functioning.

Understanding yourself. Some individuals overrate their ability to perform certain tasks, and do not see themselves in the same way that others see them. For example, they may overrate their ability to cooperate or listen. If you ask their parents about their performance of such skills, they may have very different views. It is important that we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and that we maintain hopeful and realistic approaches to dealing with the challenges that we may have. You may not be good at something yet, but if you avoid the remedial education offered in order to overcome your challenges, your weaknesses will not fade away on their own. Sometimes kids define themselves only by their weaknesses and we need to defeat that kind of thinking as well. Understanding yourself also means being aware of the level of effort you put into projects – do you want to do your best, or just get by? It is important that we are aware of these decisions, strengths and challenges. Perhaps you can’t tell them for yourself. Normally we will help teens or children start to ask for objective and constructive feedback in order to help them understand themselves better.

Organisational skills. This is partly about having a place for everything, and putting everything in its place, but also having a system of some sort that helps your teen or child stay on top of the things that they need to have with them on a daily basis, or for specific classes. Sometimes kids have too many things with them, and need to learn to cull these items so that they ensure that they carry only what they need. Does your child turn up at class regularly with the wrong equipment – then they may need support to improve their organisational skills. We often help them develop customised checklists and planning schedules to help them know what to do, as well as train them to look at the schedule and edit their schoolbags accordingly.

Flexibility. This is an essential skill during both the COVID pandemic and the teen years. Changes happen to schedules, task parameters, and even your ability to go to school or participate in after school activities. Suddenly those subjects where you could easily achieve a top grade, or a pass, no longer is so easy. I find some neurodiverse children can read easily as young children because they have extensive memory skills. Suddenly at 8 or 9 years of age we realise that they can’t read, and have to go back to reading phonetic readers again. This is short lived, but can frustrate individuals who were use to finding reading easy, then suddenly don’t because the material is much more complicated. Learning to cope with your shortcomings or mistakes you make is even challenging for adults.

Emotional regulation. Being able to understand your emotions is an important skill for children and teens. These skills need to be learnt by all kids over time.  Sometimes children have difficulty dealing with anxiety, frustration, boredom or anger and these overwhelming feelings can derail their academic performance. We notice this, in particular, with children who’s anxiety effects their performances on tests. Sometimes we can construct accommodations for this in the school setting, but over the long term, we need to enable our children to better cope.

Behaviour management. Learning to behave in a constructive manner in a particular situation is a requirement of successful study, school attendance, and future work success. Knowing how to behave in an expected fashion helps kids understand that they may have some. Behaviour management is aligned to emotional regulation. Kids can get angry, but if they start hitting or destroying property as a result of their anger issues, we need to find a way to help.

Proactive initiative. The ability to start a project without prompting is an important skill to achieving academic success. This is aligned to remembering that one has a project to start as well as looking at the big picture and breaking it down into its smaller steps. Some kids find starting a project, or figuring out how to start a project overwhelming. Therefore, they procrastinate and, seemingly, avoid the activity. We try to help kids overcome fears, thoughts and avoidance tactics that stop them starting.

Sustained focus. Having a sustained focus is important across a task. Some kids are great at starting a project but their efforts trail off as they get into the thick of the work. Maintaining focus and effort when tasks become lengthy or not interesting is challenging. For some children, with attention problems, the middle of a project may require extra support to keep them going.

Persistence. This is an attitude towards “sticking at something” without losing motivation, becoming overwhelmed, or quitting when you find it hard. Children and teens can give up a bit easily so we work with them on strategies to help them keep going when the going gets tough.

Memory skills. Working memory in particular helps children achieve well as school. Working memory is the interactive system between understanding the needs of a task being presented, and the pertinent information stored in long term memory that would help you solve that task. You may not remember facts, processes, formulas, and may need training to help you better retrieve information. Sometimes more complicated memory issues exist that create filing errors when we are trying to build ways to store information. Many memory problems can be overcome with training.

Goal setting. Understanding the goal of a task, and your goals at school and in life help students focus their attention to those tasks that will be of most benefit to them. Learning isn’t just about normalising, and bringing everyone up to the pass bar. Sometimes its about understanding those areas in which you excel and how those strengths need to be stretched beyond imagination. Goal setting helps teens in particular to review their work, audit their time, select appropriate mentors, and learn about what their lives could be like. These need to be set around the strengths and interests of the teen, not their parents, not their friends. You may even like to consider your own personal board of directors to help you start to achieve your dreams.

How would you rate your executive functioning skills? What areas could you improve in? If you have any questions, or would like an assessment or discussion of your skills please email us at RED DOOR.

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