Many parents of different learners go from not knowing the meaning of “executive functioning,” to not knowing how they didn’t grow up learning all about it. Executive functioning (EF) is truly the engine that makes our brains function effectively and efficiently. The better our executive function, the easier it is for us to adapt, recall information, and get those daily tasks done.
Next time you’re putting off something that you know is super simple and will only take you about five minutes to do, don’t call yourself lazy—blame it on your executive functioning: it’s your brain’s fault! You might need to give your brain—and your kids’ brains—a little extra oomph to put down the screens, stave off mindless distractions, and tackle the to-do list.
Whether you’re exercising your own EF skills or your kiddos’, summer is the perfect time to merge family fun with tuning up much-needed skills. Learnfully invited neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Wilson, EF Coach Elizabeth Boyarsky, and a mom of several children with learning differences (yours truly) to discuss how we sneak EF skill development into summer fun. Here are our favorite ideas:
Involve children in cooking and baking. So many EF skills are exercised in the kitchen. Measuring, following directions, taking turns, waiting for the finished product–all these tasks add up to strengthening self-control and even working memory. Plus who can resist sprinkling in some math practice with all the opportunities cooking provides?
Practice Mindfulness. Learning to be mindful and taking cues from how your body feels is important to everyone—but even more so for kids who have EF struggles. Recognizing how they feel is key to overcoming those times when impulsivity threatens to take over. Open the windows, settle in with your little one, and tune into yourselves; make mindfulness a family practice.
Reinforce healthy sleep habits. Sleep is critical to learning. Many parents tend to relax our kids’ sleep schedules a bit in the summer, and we’re missing out on a great opportunity to get sleep hours locked in. Work on putting devices away earlier in the evening, pick some great books to settle into and let the summer sun wake up the house more naturally. Before you know it a new school year will be here and everyone will be ready to rise and shine on time.
Explore a passion project with the family. Capitalizing on your learner’s interests is a great way to help build confidence while sliding in a bit of work on their EF skills. Take out books at the library on their favorite subject and have them flex their creative muscles by compiling a report that includes a hands-on project or demonstration. Let them plan out a section of the family garden or start a photography project. The sky’s the limit when it comes to passion projects and summer days.
Revamp systems that did not serve your child well last school year. The relaxed schedule of summer offers extra time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t from the previous school year. Involve your learner in the planning process for the upcoming academic year. What will help them get out the door with everything they need for school every day? How could they better organize their afternoons? Empowering them with choices can give a sense of confidence and control that will follow them long after they hang up their school backpack for the last time.
Provide structure with agency, strike the balance. We all run out of patience during the rat race of the school year—our kids included. Summer is a great time to work on the mental flexibility that allows us to change things up. Call a family meeting about your summer schedule and take everyone’s suggestions. Can your kiddo bend to someone else’s needs a bit, or are they inflexible? Work on a balance that gives them support along with a little bit of freedom to find what works best for them.
Pair the pomodoro (timer) technique with music. Music makes everything better. If your learner is struggling with distractions or has a hard time completing things in a timely manner, experiment with sound. Have them try to finish a task before the end of a song, or try soothing music to help get them through a chore they’d rather not do. Incorporating music may help keep them motivated to complete a task.
Plan outdoor activities. Summer provides endless opportunities to get outside and explore, so have your learner plan a scavenger hunt or create an obstacle course. Or take a nature walk, which can provide time to slow down and listen for unique sounds. Picnics can be planned, gardens can be planted, imaginary adventures can be taken… the possibilities are endless!
Facilitate honest, reflective discussions. We’re often rushing from one thing to the next during the school year so the often lazy days of summer give us more time to talk openly and honestly. Talk with your child about what’s working in their life and what isn’t. Making sure they feel heard can alleviate lots of frustration and build their confidence and ability to self-advocate.
Gamify gamify gamify! Play a variety of different types of games (card games, board games, role-playing, video games, etc.). No summer vacation is complete without a game (or ten, or twenty). Next time your kids are begging for one more game, remind yourself that every game provides an opportunity to work on turn-taking, mental flexibility, handling failure, and team-building. Games are a fantastic way to sneak in many EF skill-builders!
If you need even more ideas for the next time one of your kids groans, “I’m bored,” we’ve created a sheet of activity cards to keep on hand all summer. Print the sheet off and cut the individual cards out, then grab one daily to exercise the corresponding EF skills. Challenge your family to see how many they can complete this summer, or fill a jar and let your kids take turns picking one each day. They’re sure to keep your family busy and your EF skills strong to prepare for back to school!
Executive Function Activity Cards
About the Author
Jessica Watson is a mom to several kids with learning differences, including one with autism. As a homeschooling parent, a published author in this space, and a marketing specialist, she has found a great balance between her personal life and her work with the neurodivergent community, and adds a blend of proven and practical advice to our Executive Functioning panel.