Executive Functioning Difficulties in Children and How To Help


Does this sound like your child?

  • They have difficulty getting ready for school in the morning?
  • They get distracted if you give them more than one instruction at a time?
  • They constantly lose things like school hats and notices?
  • They can’t stop themselves lashing out when frustrated?
  • They try to solve problems the same way every time, even though it doesn’t work.

If any of these things sound familiar, then your child may have difficulties with executive functioning.

The term ‘executive function’ is used to describe a group of skills that help us to regulate learning, emotions and behavior. These skills are commonly said to include organisation and planning, task initiation, response inhibition, working memory, emotional self-control, flexibility and focus, and are thought to be mainly under the control of the part of our brain called the frontal lobe which is involved in higher level thinking and processing.

Many children with conditions such as Autism, ADHD and learning disorders have deficits in executive functioning, but deficits can also be present in the wider population. These difficulties can have a big impact on their ability to complete everyday tasks and manage at home, school and out in the community.

If your child has impairments in one or more of these skills below, there will be many tasks they are expected to complete throughout their day that may prove difficult, leading to frustration in both themselves and the adults in their lives. The good news is that there are many things we can do to support children to manage their executive functioning challenges and improve their skills.

To understand why executive functions are important, let us first consider how each of these functions help us in our daily lives, along with some suggestions about how you might be able to support them.

Organisation and Planning
We use these skills to think ahead to situations or events and know what items we might need to prepare or take with us, consider what we need to complete tasks effectively, and keep our belongings in an ordered way so they are easy to locate and use when needed. A child with difficulties in these areas may continually forget to put their reader in their bag for school, struggle to gather the materials needed to be ready for a spelling test, or have a bedroom that always looks like a hurricane has just been through it.

How you can help your child with Organisation and Planning:

  • Use labels or pictures of items to indicate where they belong (eg. Labels on drawers for clothes, toys or school items).
  • Colour code materials for specific subjects at school.
  • Make checklists for items to go into your child’s schoolbag each day.
  • Use a visual schedule for the steps involved in getting dressed in the morning.
  • Provide an example of what the final product or a task will look like to assist with planning and expectations (e.g. a completed poster in science, or a photo of the bedroom with everything in its proper place).

Task Initiation
We use this skill to understand how to begin or get started on a task such as writing an essay, cleaning up the toy room or getting dressed, and to physically engage in that task. A child with difficulties initiating tasks may still be standing staring at the toys on the floor 15 minutes after you asked them to pack up, or spend all of their literacy block staring at a blank page because they’re stuck on the first sentence of an essay.

How you can help your child with Task Initiation:

  • Use visual supports (e.g. pictures, timers) to indicate the start of a new task or transitions.
  • Break down tasks into manageable pieces and teach the child how to do this themselves as they grow older.
  • Provide examples of the first step in a task to assist a child to get started (e.g. ‘sentence starters’ for writing tasks, or picking up all the Lego first when tidying the play room.

Response Inhibition
We use this skill to stop ourselves engaging in behavior that may be inappropriate or unexpected, even when our first impulse might be to do it. A child with difficulties in this area may repeatedly touch his sister’s computer even after being told not to on many occasions and being aware of the consequences, or start playing with his trains when he knows he has to get ready for school.

How you can help your child with Response Inhibition:

  • Teach self-control using games that involve turn-taking and waiting, or require some thought and strategy before taking a turn (e.g. jenga, UNO, kerplunk).
  • Explicitly teach the child what you want them to do in specific situation and introduce rewards or incentives for acting appropriately.
  • Teach sequences or routines for checking their own work for mistakes if they tend to try and complete work as fast as possible without considering their responses.

Working Memory
We use this skill to take in information, hold it in our head for a short time, and manipulate it to produce a particular outcome or result. Children with difficulties in this area may get easily distracted when given multi-step instructions, completing the first or last part but forgetting the rest, or frequently lose track of what they are reading and have to read the same passage multiple times before they can move on.

How you can help your child with Working Memory:

  • Use colour and pictures to aid memory.
  • Use melody or rhythm to help remember information.
  • Provide instructions both verbally and visually.
  • Break down multi-step tasks or instructions into manageable pieces, and present each step separately.
  • Provide visual checklists, task cards or reminders to assist the child to be independent.
  • Do something interactive or reflective with new information to help lock it into long- term memory.
  • Teach and encourage techniques such as mnemonics to help remember sequences of information (e.g. Never Eat Soggy Wheatbix for North East South West).

Emotional Self-control
We use this skill to regulate our emotional responses and behavior to ensure our emotions are not displayed in inappropriate or unexpected ways, and to stay in control when experiencing different emotions to allow us to continue task. Difficulties with emotional self-control are often displayed as reactions that seem excessive or out of proportion to an event such as screaming and throwing things when told they need to wait for a turn on the computer, becoming distressed and refusing to continue a task because a mistake has been made.

How you can help your child with Emotional Self-Control:

  • Help the child understand different emotions by labelling them in themselves and others and highlighting the physical changes that occur when we experience emotions (e.g. heart beating fast when angry or anxious).
  • Teach appropriate behaviours to engage in when experiencing strong emotions to assist with developing control and calming down (e.g. using break cards, using a tent in the classroom, introducing sensory activities that are calming).
  • Support the use of cognitive strategies such as identifying size of different problems to assist with managing emotional reactions.
  • Practice calming strategies such as deep breathing and visualisation when a child is calm, so they can readily use them when needed.

We use this skill to engage in effective problem solving by considering alternative solutions and being open to change. When a child has difficulties with flexible thinking, they may, for example, continue to try and open the packaging of a new toy with brute force and become more and more upset and frustrated, instead of asking for help or considering using scissors to get it open.

How you can help your child with Flexibility:

  • Support the child to consider alternative possibilities or solutions to different situations using flow charts and visuals to illustrate actions and outcomes (e.g. what would happen if ….?)
  • Play games that require problem solving or alternative ways of using common objects to illustrate possibilities (e.g. brainstorm the different uses of a metal rubbish bin – robot costume, drum, bird bath)
  • Encourage the child to predict what might happen next in books, tv episodes, or movies to help them consider different possibilities for choices characters might make, and discuss alternate actions and outcomes (e.g. what if Buzz and Woody had just given up when they were with Sid instead of trying to make a plan to get home to Andy? (Toy Story)).

We use this skill to attend to important information in our environment and disregard distracting or irrelevant information to enable us to complete tasks or take in information effectively. A child with difficulties in this area may become quickly and easily distracted when they are supposed to engaging in a task, requiring constant adult prompting to concentrate and complete an activity, or be seemingly unable to keep themselves in their seat and concentrating on their work.

How you can help your child with Focus:

  • Use timers to encourage self-monitoring of on-task behaviour (e.g. each time the timer goes off, check whether you are working or daydreaming).
  • Provide fidget toys and other sensory aids to facilitate appropriate movement when needed.
  • Allow regular movement breaks, especially during long periods of seated work.
  • Allow the use of ear plugs or ear phones to block out distraction during ‘working’ times.
  • Use checklists to break up tasks and give guidelines of the steps that need to be completed.

With the right support and guidance, children with executive functioning difficulties can learn to manage and overcome these challenges, making a big difference to their learning and self-esteem, and helping them to be more independent and effective in their daily lives.

What can teachers do to help children with Autism be successful in the Classroom?

If your classroom is anything like the thousands of classrooms in schools across Australia, then it is likely that there will be at least one student with Autism among your students each year.

While every child with Autism is different, and has their own unique set of strengths and challenges, there are a few simple things that you can do to give any child with Autism the chance to be successful in your classroom.    

Develop a relationship with the child.

Children need to feel accepted, acknowledged and genuinely liked by the adults caring for them to be able to develop trust and feel safe in the school environment. When a child feels connected with their teachers and support staff, they are more likely to trust in their decisions and be more responsive to behaviour management strategies too.

Taking some time to learn about a child’s interests, and using that knowledge to make a positive connection, can make a big difference to how a child with Autism responds to you and the demands of the classroom. You might need to remember the names of some Pokemon characters, find out how to build a house in Minecraft or spend some time learning about horses, but finding moments to share with your student with Autism to show interest in them and their passions, is definitely an investment worth making.

Say what you mean.

As adults, we often speak in ways that are indirect and assume others can infer the message hidden underneath our words. While this is usually the case for neurotypical children, children with Autism often struggle to understand the subtleties of language, even when their own language is well developed. This can lead them to get stuck on a literal interpretation of the words being spoken instead of the message being conveyed underneath.

Children often come to me confused and distressed by events in the classroom or playground that have been caused by unclear communication, particularly when their misinterpretation of an instruction has led to them getting in trouble and they do not understand why. For example, one 9 year old boy came to me bewildered and feeling that he had been unjustly punished following an incident in his classroom. He had been told that once he finished answering questions on a worksheet he could have free time in the classroom. He answered the questions quickly with short sentences and spent the rest of the class reading. When the teacher checked his work she was not happy with his answers – she expected a paragraph in response to each question but had not clearly communicated that, assuming that the child would know what was expected – and he was made to stay in at recess and write more in answer to each question.

Taking the time to use clear unambiguous language and ensure expectations are fully understood, can make a big difference to an Autistic student’s performance in the classroom, and also help to reduce feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

Be consistent.

For the majority of children with Autism, experiencing anxiety is a part of everyday life, and can have a profound impact on their ability to cope with the school environment. When people or situations are unpredictable a child’s anxiety levels are likely to increase, sometimes leading to challenging behaviour and meltdowns, as the child loses the ability to regulate their emotions and control their behaviour – the fight, flight or freeze response.

You can make your classroom more predictable by having regular routines, visual schedules and clear expectations. When a child understands what is happening each day and what is required of them, the classroom becomes a familiar and predictable place and their feelings of anxiety decrease.

However, predictability is not just important in the day’s activities, but also in how you and other staff respond to the child with Autism and his or her behaviour. This is particularly evident when a child’s regular teacher is away, or when attending specialist classes. If a child is allowed to lie down during mat time in your class, but gets in trouble for lying down when he has a substitute teacher, this will cause confusion and anxiety, and possibly challenging behaviour if the child feels he or she is being treated unfairly.

Ensuring there is consistency not just in classroom routines but also across staff responses when supporting a child with Autism, will result in a more settled and engaged student.

Be curious.

Curiosity is often said to be the opposite of stress and anxiety. This can be a powerful observation when you have a child with Autism in your classroom who is engaging in challenging behaviour. While it is natural to feel stress, anxiety and frustration when faced with a challenging child, being curious about what the child is communicating by behaving in this way, and what might help the child change their behaviour, can really assist in taking the emotion out of the situation and allow you to approach the problem in a more effective way.

Acknowledge their feelings and experiences.

The difference in thinking and sensory sensitivities that are commonly associated with Autism, often result in children with Autism perceiving situations differently to those around them. This can lead to confusion and conflict, as a child with Autism may insist that a situation has occurred in one way, and others involved in that same situation may have experienced it differently. It is important to remember that there are no right or wrong feelings. While as adults we might feel compelled to tell a child that they should feel a particular way in response to an event according to what makes most sense to us, it is not helpful to the child to have their feelings dismissed. Instead, we need to acknowledge the child’s feelings and their perception of a situation, and assist them to consider that there might be another point of view. Letting them know they have been heard and their feelings are acknowledged, can make a big difference in helping your student with Autism manage difficult situations and strengthen your relationship with them as well.

With the support and guidance of an understanding teacher, children with Autism can have the positive experiences they need to achieve success in the classroom.