Executive Functioning

Executive skills are the fundamental brain-based skills required to execute tasks: getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, being adaptable and resilient— everything a child needs to negotiate the demands of childhood at school, home, and with friends involves adequately developed executive skills. Some children lack individual executive skills or lag behind their same age peers in developing them.

Brain Based Skills

Developmental Progression of Executive Skills



Two Sides of the Brain

Right Hemisphere: Visual processing and intuitive, abstract thinking. This hemisphere is more active when we are listening to music, imagining, or daydreaming. It is primarily responsible for coordination and awareness of visual, motor, social, and non-verbal information. It interprets the "non-literal" aspects of communication/language and social language.

Left Hemisphere: Analytical work such as math, speaking, writing, and reading. It is primarily responsible for verbal reasoning (rules of grammar, word meanings), language processing, and cognition.

Corpus callosum: A dense network of neurons connecting the two hemispheres, responsible for facilitating communication between them.

The best way to get both sides of the brain ready to read, write, and spell is through movement and play! Coordinating the two sides of the body through play strengthens neurological connections and will prepare students for reading and writing.

Executive Skills Checklist

(Approximate age at which the following skills are developed)


  • Follows simple directions- go get your jacket
  • Picks up toys
  • Brushes teeth, clears dishes, gets dressed- with reminders
  • Inhibits some behaviors (don't touch hot stove, run into the street, hit, etc., begin to share)

Kindergarten to Grade 2:

  • Runs errands: 2-3 step direction
  • Picks up room and makes bed- with reminders
  • Brings papers to and from school
  • Completes homework assignments (20 min max)
  • Inhibits more behaviors- Follows general safety rules, raises hand at school before speaking, keeps hands to self

Grade 3-5:

  • Completes time-delayed errands: go to a neighbor's to pick up something, remember to do something after school
  • Vacuums or dusts, cleans up kitchen (more complex tasks)
  • Remembers assignments and materials for homework
  • Completes homework independently (1 hour max), plans and completes a project (book report)
  • Keeps track of belongings when away from home
  • Keeps track of daily schedule and changes (ex: different activities after school)
  • Saves money/delay gratification for a long-term goal
  • Inhibits/self-regulates: behaves even when no adult watching, no temper tantrums

Grades 6-8:

  • Helps out with many chores/tasks at home (up to 60-90 minutes to complete)
  • Baby-sits young siblings
  • Has system for organizing school work
  • Can follow complex school schedule involving multiple classes/teachers
  • Plans/carries out long-term projects with timeline, perhaps multiple projects at once
  • Plans time including after/during/before school, homework, family responsibilities
  • Inhibits rule-breaking in the absence of visible authority

High School:

  • Manages schoolwork on daily basis, handing in assignments by due dates for multiple teachers
  • Makes and keeps long-term goals with realistic plans for meeting these goals
  • Makes positive use of leisure time, employment, sports, activities, etc.
  • Inhibits reckless behaviors: drugs, sex, vandalism, etc.

Supporting Executive Skill Development at Home

What you can do to help will vary depending on your child's developmental level. He or she may need more assistance with organization of belongings, or assistance with remembering the steps to a daily routine. The following are general strategies for improving executive skills. Your child's occupational therapist can assist with developing strategies based on your child's areas of need at school and home.

Understanding is the first step.

Knowing that your child is not lazy, naughty or lacking motivation is critical. Tell/show him/her that you understand why he/she is having difficulty and that you are not angry or disappointed.

Ensure a well balanced diet, good sleeping routines and regular exercise.

These are very important in building up your child's energy level. Allow for regular movement and snack breaks during homework time and give your child chores that allow him/her to move around. Alternate activities between mentally demanding, and less challenging or physical ones.

Manage your child's workload

Some children may need modifications to their schoolwork load (e.g. fewer assignments, a rest period during the day) and extra time for assignments. Require shorter periods of concentration and attention. Try to prioritize your child's work so that the most important things get completed first - then it is less problematic if he/she doesn't have the time or energy to finish everything.

Organize the Environment

Provide a quiet place for your child to seek out when needed. Minimize potential visual and auditory distractions. Develop and stick to a daily homework routine. Return things to their proper place when finished. Have your child focus on one thing at a time and finish one thing before beginning the next. Display a daily schedule and/or use picture schedules for daily routines.

Information Processing

When giving instructions, get your child's attention by calling his/her name & making eye contact. Present information in small chunks and allow adequate time to process and interpret one chunk before presenting more. Encourage him or her to repeat directions back to you. Reinforce verbal instructions with written cues or instructions.Simplify and reduce material on worksheets (cover the parts you are not working on). Try to keep your child on task by keeping the task simple and focused. Use short prompts and cues. Prioritize assignments and/or steps to completing assignments for the student. Set time limits for specific task completion. Use a timer.

Recommended Reading:

"Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential" by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare for more information about executive functioning and how it impacts your child.

Home - Smart But Scattered KidsDrs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare help thousands of children who struggle at home and in school reach their potential using Executive Skills coaching.