Developing Executive Functioning Grade by Grade

By Ms. Karen Melville, Head of Skills, Junior School

Executive functioning is a set of skills used by our brains to remember, think, organize and self-regulate. We all use these skills daily in our learning, working, and managing daily activities and life in general. These skills, like a muscle, can be developed and grown through practice and training starting from a very young age.

Here are some ways you can support your child in developing these skills right from junior kindergarten upwards. 

JK & Kindergarten 
Younger children need a lot of support to learn about rules and structures, so activities such as intentional imaginary play allow children to develop rules and guide their actions in playing roles. Children must hold complex ideas in mind and shape their actions to follow these rules as well as inhibit impulses or actions that don’t fit the "role." Encourage your child to make "props" or create opportunities for authentic play, mirroring life experiences. For example, if you are working in the garden, allow your child to come and work alongside you, or if you are cooking in the kitchen, encourage your child to emulate this in a play kitchen. 
Group storytelling is another way for children to pay close attention and adapt their additions to fit the plot. This challenges their attention, working memory and self-control. 

Kindergarten-Grade 2
Playing card and board games with children requires attention, turn taking and working memory practice. Games such as Concentration, Go Fish and Memory require a child to make and hold a plan in mind for several moves ahead. When a child strategizes their working memory, their inhibitory control and flexibility have to work together to support effective play. Other games that might be enjoyed by this age group are Sorry!, Battleship, Parcheesi, Mancala, and Checkers.

Grades 2-3
As children grow and develop, their love of solving problems and riddles can grow. Challenging puzzles, such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku, provide a workout for a child’s cognitive flexibility. The Rubik’s Cube is another game where students need to use spatial information to create potential solutions. 

Grades 4+
Children yearn to take on some responsibility, and their ability to initiate grows when they are given opportunities to do so. Here are a few ideas to support your older children in developing their independence, executive functioning and empowerment to be in control of their own learning:

  • Keep a calendar with important dates and deadlines; try using colour-coding for each type of activity.
  • Avoid multitasking, especially when participating in a learning task.
  • Have a consistent time and routine for homework or study; this includes finding time every day to read, especially when there isn’t other homework to be completed.
  • Use checklists and sticky note reminders to support your child’s memory of regular tasks.
  • Break larger tasks into smaller pieces so your child can work through step-by-step.
  • Allow your child to pack their bag, make their lunch and set an alarm to wake themselves up.
  • Teach household responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, laundry) in a step-by-step manner. 
If you have any questions or would like support in developing your child’s executive functioning, please feel free to reach out to one of our teachers in the skills department: Karen Melville, Sandy Dhami, Colleen Anderson, Christine Legge, Clare Vreulink and Selina Mui.