5 Ways to Foster Executive Function and Independence

 September 25, 2019

Does your child struggle to follow instructions, maintain focus or control emotional outbursts? Is making a plan, or even following one, a routine challenge?

While all children struggle with those problems to some degree, kids with special needs require significant guidance and support to help them grow.

We’ve seen many parents mistake underdeveloped executive function for laziness and disruptiveness. That mistake often leads to frustration, which is never a healthy emotional response around kids.

While trying to understand the intricacies of executive functions might have left you scratching your head in despair, the good news is that you don’t need the knowledge of an academic researcher to help your child improve.

With our list of 5 ways to boost executive function, you can make small changes in your child’s life for big improvements in their development. If you want to encourage your kids to be more independent, you will find great help in the following list.

1. Set Routines and Schedules

You probably know someone who uses day planners to remember important dates and events. Or maybe you use one yourself. Whatever the case might be, helping your child set schedule and routines can help them:

  • Organize their ideas
  • Manage their time
  • Track their goals
  • Maximize their working memory

Please note that simplicity is the key here. A simple schedule is one that should answer the following questions for your child:

  • What exactly is expected of her?
  • How long is it going to take?

If you can answer those two questions clearly, you may find your child eager to please you. Every time they successfully go through a routine, you should always praise them. Each victory will build onto the last one, ultimately uplifting their confidence in their own ability.

The Not-So-Secret Ingredient of Routines that Stick

To make the most of routines, you need to understand how habits work. We could write a whole post on this subject, but let’s talk about the absolute basics for now.

Any successful habit is powered by a trigger. Some people listen to audiobooks on their way to work. Others listen to the TV while working in the kitchen. Many people who would never sing in public find it near impossible to stop singing in the shower.

In all those situations, a strong trigger is making the habit stick: the daily commute, the kitchen environment or the act of taking a shower.

Here are some trigger ideas for you to base your child’s routines around:

  • After breakfast, lunch, or dinner
  • After school time
  • After watching TV
  • Before bedtime

2. Break Big Projects into Tiny Tasks

If you want your child to finish their projects, you need to help them break the big project into tiny tasks. You should try to be as clear as you possibly can.

For example, don’t just tell your kid to get ready for school. Tell them each step of the process to make it incredibly simple to follow.

Kids with special needs find it difficult to organize thoughts and remember details. Here are a few tools you can use to make it easy for them:

  • Checklists for things like getting ready in the morning
  • Step-by-step to-do lists for linear routines
  • Post-it notes for strategically placed visual reminders

3. Give them a choice

One of the most brilliant parenting tactics is offering a choice. For example, instead of telling your child to put their socks on, you could offer them a choice between the green and the white socks.

The main thing is to keep it limited to two choices. Any more and you risk overwhelming them.

Remember: choice overload is something even adults struggle to deal with.

Choices are very powerful and the right ones can help your child:

  • Build confidence in themselves
  • Grow their problem solving skills
  • Boost their sense of control
  • Become more responsible and act independently

4. Offer incentives and rewards

Kids who have trouble with executive functions often struggle to stay motivated throughout the whole project. Creating external motivation can help change that.

Motivation is influenced heavily by rewards, but their power is amplified manyfold if the rewards are instant. As a parent, you can promise an incentive to your kid once he finishes the whole project. That’s a long term reward.

For an instant burst of motivation, you should break the project into tiny tasks as we discussed earlier, and then reward your child on every step of the way. Each task in the project should earn them an instant reward. You’d be surprised by how powerful this can be.

With that being said, it’s never a good idea to go overboard with the rewards. Good examples can be as simple as a:

  • Short break
  • Verbal praise like “Good job!”
  • Good old high five
  • Small piece of candy
  • Cute sticker

5. Encourage Physical Activities

Physical activities can do wonders for health in general, but children with low executive function stand to benefit the most from them.

According to a review of 31 intervention studies, long-term and routine physical activities can significantly improve executive function, attention, and school performance in preadolescent children.

From sports like soccer, swimming, and gymnastics to combat sports like wrestling, martial arts, and boxing-there are so many choices that you’re sure to find something your kid will love.

To make things even more fun, you should consider rough-and-tumble play. If you’re not sure what it is, playful fighting sums it up nicely.

Rough-and-tumble play is both healthy and effective when it comes to your child’s physical, social, and emotional growth. You can read our in-depth post on it to learn more.

One Final Piece of Advice

With all the 5 ways to boost executive function covered, it’s time to wrap this post. But before we let you go, we have one final piece of advice you should hear:

You need to find the sweet spot between too little and too much support.

As a parent, you are the key to your child’s success.

If you give them the bare minimum guidance and support, they will struggle to achieve the smallest of milestones. Most parents understand this.

But where many parents fail is when they get worried and start offering too much support. They practically do the task themselves, leaving the child doubtful of their own abilities and dependent on the parent.

A simple rule of thumb is to offer as much help as you can for the first few times. Then gradually decrease your supervision and support.

The first few wins will show your kids that they can do it. Once they have a few victories under their belt, they’ll grow more confident and more independent in no time.

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