Executive Function: Your Brain's Air-Traffic Controller

Your family wants to eat dinner at 7 PM, and you’re the cook. How do you get the food on the table and on time after you’ve been working all day?

Someone cuts in front of you at the Fairway supermarket checkout lane. What keeps you from yelling ”#*#!!!@”?

What would you do if the subway you take to work is extremely delayed?

Your responses to these questions all rely on your executive function skills defined as “an umbrella term for the complex cognitive processes that control flexible, goal directed behavior, as well as the coordination and synthesis of many different processes” (SMARTS). Executive function is often compared to an air traffic controller at an airport or the conductor of an orchestra.

Executive function develops over time. For example, following multi-step directions or being able to calm yourself down when you are very frustrated may be too much for a child’s executive function system but not for an adult’s. The good news is that in addition to strengthening your own executive function skills, there are many strategies to promote the development of your child’s executive function.

Organizing and prioritizing may not come easily to you or your child; however, developing a specific plan that everyone agrees upon will help all of you. For example, it’s November and your child’s been at school for over two months. Papers are everywhere: Homework papers, tests, school newsletters, consent forms, etc. Just like you would take a photo of an important merchandise receipt, snap a photo or scan school papers that will need to be referenced later on during the school year. Younger children cannot do this on their own, but middle and high school children can all use their smartphones to store information. If high-tech is not for you, create binders or color-coded folders with your child, and have them label homework, tests, forms, etc. Every 1-2 weeks, have your children clean out their backpacks and save important information in these binders/folders. Anything else gets tossed in the recycle bin.

Creating a plan with your child will help to keep the planes flying, the orchestra playing and your family life “humming.”

Jane Gertler
Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning
The Churchill School and Center

Executive Function Resources

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) Executive Function 101 Ebook

Time Out
Break Time
Big Stretch Reminder

Distraction Minimizers
Stay Focused (Chrome extension)
Strict Workflow (Chrome extension)
Freedom (iOS)

Calendar/To Do
Google Keep & Google Calendar
Remember the Milk

Self Regulation
Coach.me (habit tracker)
Google Forms/IFTTT

Suggested Reading
Braaten, E. & Willoughby, B. (2014). Bright Kids Who Can't Keep Up. Guilford Press.

Cooper-Kahn, J., & Dietzel, L. C. (2008}. Late, Jost and unprepared: A parents' guide to helping children with executive functioning. Bethesda, Md. Woodbine House.

Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009}. Smart but scattered: The revolutionary "executive skills" approach to helping kids reach their potential. New York: Guilford Press.