What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functions are “underlying processes that allow children and adolescents to regulate their behaviors towards a goal” (Clifford O’Brien & Miller-Kuhaneck, 2020). The set of mental skills involved in executive functioning help children engage in daily life skills, learn and play. Executive function “includes the processes of: attention, inhibition, working memory, emotion and action”(Clifford O’Brien & Miller-Kuhaneck, 2020). 

Skills Occupational therapist can work on to improve executive functioning

Planning: involves managing current and future plans by writing goals and recognizing steps needed to complete a certain task. Planning requires you to prioritize which tasks need to be done immediately and which can wait. 

Organization: keeping things neat and orderly

Time management: includes awareness of time, how long a task is going to take and the understanding of time in the past and future. Children need to learn how to use their time wisely. 

Working memory: requires students to remember things for an immediate use as well as having the ability to hold information in their memory while also completing complex tasks. This skill also allows children to draw from and learn from things in their memory they have done in the past. 

Metacognition: “internal thinking that one does to evaluate thoughts, plans, feelings, and actions” (Clifford O’Brien & Miller-Kuhaneck, 2020). It involves the ability to self monitor and self evaluate. 

Response inhibition: involves having the ability to stop certain responses if they are not suitable or appropriate for a situation. Children will learn to stop, think, plan and then act. 

Emotional control: refers to controlling one’s emotions, feelings and thoughts so they can successfully function within their environment. 

Sustained attention: refers to children’s ability to stay on task and pay attention during a certain activity. 

Initiation: refers to the ability to begin a task within a timely manner without procrastination. 

Flexibility: refers to having the ability to adjust to the environment changes or different expectations. 

Signs your child may have executive functioning deficits:

➡ Forgetting tasks and homework

➡ Trouble initiating homework or school assignments independently 

➡ Sloppy notes/binder

➡ Procrastination

➡ Melting down when environment or routine are changed

➡ Increased distractibility

➡ Trouble breaking down assignments

➡ Trouble listening and following multi step directions  

➡ Trouble transitioning between tasks 

➡ Moving on to another task before the first one is finished

General Principles to help your child improve their executive functioning

  • Alter physical or social environment
  • Breaking down steps of a skill 
  • Learn the way your child learns (learning style)
  • Consider developmental level 
  • Visual reminders
  • Establish routines and schedules
  • Checklists
  • Positive feedback
  • Involve student in the process of learning
  • Slowly withdraw support


Clifford O’Brien, J., & Miller-Kuhaneck, H. (2020). Case-Smith’s occupational therapy for children and adolescents (8th ed.). Elsevier.

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