Special needs

How to know if your kid is struggling with executive functioning skills

Many kids get easily distracted or have difficulty with transitions, but for some kids these behaviours are a sign of a bigger problem.

You may have heard the term “executive functioning skills” before—it’s a bit of a buzz word in kids’ education and development right now—but what does it mean, exactly?

“Think of executive function as the conductor of an orchestra,” says Nora Klemencic, a psychologist at the Child Development Institute, a children’s mental health agency in Toronto. “You can have lots of talented musicians, but if the conductor isn’t there to organize and plan and carry out the conducting, the members might not be able to reach their goal.”

In addition to running the show, executive functioning skills also let you have self-control, set priorities, focus on the right tasks and be flexible. It’s associated with regions of your prefrontal cortex, which is thought to be one of the last parts of the brain to mature —it’s only fully developed in your mid-20s.

All kids have immature executive functioning skills—that’s why they’re easily distracted, take forever to get out the door in the morning, and kick their siblings when they get mad. But for some kids, their executive functioning skills noticeably lag behind their peers, and those challenges will follow them into adulthood. That can result in trouble at school, having a hard time socially (for example, taking turns in conversations or letting a conversation flow into a different topic even if they have more to say) and difficulties completing what seem like simple tasks—like getting out the door in the morning—at home.

Thankfully, there are ways parents can strengthen kids’ executive functioning and to help them develop strategies to compensate for those weaknesses. Here’s what you need to know:

What are the signs of executive functioning issues?

Because they see so many kids of the same age, teachers are often first to notice executive functioning issues. “Often parents may not be aware of it at all before the school brings something up,” says Joan Flood, a family doctor who specializes in ADHD, autism and learning disorders.

That’s what happened for Beth Miller.* “Because my son was an only child, I wasn’t able to recognize how bad his executive functioning was,” she says. “Daycare really brought it to our attention. They said his focus and attention was really really poor for his age. He was getting distracted while putting his shoes on before going out.”

If you’re worried your child has an executive functioning problem, or the school has brought up the issue, talk to your family doctor or paediatrician about what to do next. They can usually suggest some tools and resources to help you and your family, but they may also refer you to another expert for an assessment. ADHD is the most common condition that causes executive functioning issues, because the difficulties that come from ADHD are all executive functioning issues. But people with autism, oppositional defiance disorder, anxiety, depression and learning differences can also have executive functioning problems. And so can kids who suffer from abuse, neglect or violence—the toxic stress from those situations affects their brains.

If the issues don’t seem to stem from an official diagnosis, a psychologist, social worker, child and youth worker, or psychotherapist can help tease out exactly what kind of executive functioning issues your child is having, and what accommodations might help them at school and at home.

How do executive functioning issues affect kids?

Executive functioning issues affect kids differently as they grow up. When they’re younger, they often show up as being inflexible or having a hard time with transitions. “They’re the kid who, when you’re at the playground and you say it’s time to go, they suddenly have a temper tantrum,” says Todd Cunningham, an assistant professor in Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto.

Miller says she can see how hard transitions are for her son, who is now in junior kindergarten and has been diagnosed with ADHD. “He finds it really hard—we will be going somewhere he’s excited to go, but when he has to put down his toy and put on his boots, he flat-out refuses, and sometimes it escalates to the point of tears.”

As they get older and into the early grades, children with executive functioning issues might be very messy or forgetful. And around grade five, they might start to struggle with the level of work required, because schoolwork becomes more complicated at this age. “There are more things they have to hold in their mind and juggle,” says Cunningham. They might also have trouble controlling their impulses and acting appropriately in social situations, which can stand out more as they grow older.

How can I help my kid with their executive functioning skills?

Rather than focusing on the long list of how executive functioning problems can affect kids, zoom in on the specific difficulties your child is having. If they’re having trouble writing essays, you can teach them how to do outlines beforehand, if they’re having difficulties with social cues, you can teach them how to recognize those.

At school, kids who have executive functioning issues may be able to get accommodations under an individualized education plan (IEP). That might include things like teachers breaking assignments down into individual steps, or having resource teachers check in with kids to help them create and maintain organization systems and make sure they’re on track with bigger projects.

Accommodations often involve the idea of scaffolding—where you add more structure to the environment to teach kids good habits and routines, and then slowly remove the structure until they can do it themselves. “You’re teaching them the strategies that other kids would naturally pick up, until they become automatic,” says Cunningham.

You can scaffold skills at home, too. If your child is having trouble cleaning up their room, you might help them break that task down into steps—picking up toys, putting away laundry, and vacuuming the floor—and then turn that into a checklist they can follow, before the steps become a habit and they don’t need it anymore.

For ideas, a good go-to is the book Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, which is full of specific tips to help, and the website CADDAC.ca has good resources for parents. Programs like CDI offer therapy and support for kids and parents, and experts like occupational therapists, cognitive behavioural therapists, and organizational coaches can also help. For kids with ADHD, medication may be an option as well.

Finally, try and stay away from punishments that come from issues of executive function. “Make sure that you don’t think of a skill deficit as being willful disobedience. Reframe it as a weakness or a skill that needs to be taught or developed,” says Klemencic. Natural consequences may not be helpful for weaknesses that are based in lagging skills, because it’s not that your child doesn’t want to consistently do what’s expected of them, but that they can’t. Executive functioning skills wax and wane throughout the day, even for adults, depending on rest levels, stress, mood, hunger and more.

Having the mindset that these are skills that needs to be learned, instead of your child being bad, can also help your child think positively about their differences, instead of feeling ashamed that things that seem easy for others are so hard for them. “We don’t want children to start feeling like their weaknesses define them,” says Klemencic.

Miller says modifying her expectations was the most helpful thing they did as a family. “My number one tip is, don’t think the answer is discipline. Set aside what your expectations for behaviour are, and give yourself—and your kid—a break.”

*Name has been changed