Executive Functioning: A Perfect COVID Project

Summer’s in full swing, and fall—particularly the return to school—looms large on the horizon. So many headlines over the past few months have focused on what went wrong with the quick shift to e-learning last spring: technological and logistical barriers, interrupted coursework, and social setbacks. There’s so much focus on what hasn’t been achieved that we seem to have lost focus on what our children can be doing with this time—learning new skills, creating good habits, and working on executive functioning.

Executive functioning is what gives us our sense of independence and self-sufficiency. It’s how we’re able to set and stick to a schedule, determine the steps needed to complete a task, set a goal for ourselves, and evaluate our own performance along the way. Many parents—especially special needs parents—tend to absorb these responsibilities for our children. Now that COVID has forced us to slow down a bit, take this opportunity to help your child develop the skills that will benefit him his entire life—no matter what COVID brings us this fall.

Focus on the parts, not the whole.

  • Help your child identify a simple, clear goal, such as cleaning his room, making his bed, or finishing his book report. Work with him to break the larger goal down into small, manageable chunks. You might divide the room into different sections, break the book report out by paragraph, or create a step-by-step list of how to change the sheets.
  • Give him as much choice as possible about the order and specific way in which he completes each task. (“What’s one thing you can pick up off the floor? What part of your book do you want to write about today? Should we change the sheets or pillows first?”)
  • You will need to take the lead at first, but work on slowly letting your child take over more and more of the work, planning, and decision making for each task. Wait until he’s mastered each step before moving on to the next one. Note: This will be frustrating. He will be slow, make a mess, and do it his way—but you must let him do it! 
  • Talk about strategies you use in your own life and how you’ve applied them to different situations. Have him tell you about a time he was able to complete a task and how he might be able to use what he’s learned. (“When I cleaned my room, I broke it down into small chunks. I can break my book report down into small chunks, too.”)
  • Use photos, checklists, or other visual aids to help illustrate individual steps in a larger process, and make sure to keep them in context—bathroom routines should be hung in the bathroom, homework reminders in the study area, etc.
  • Celebrate the small victories! Make sure to give your child plenty of praise and positive reinforcement. Call out each step he mastered in order to accomplish his overarching goal, and remember he’s worked very hard—never tell him any part of it was “easy” or that he “could’ve done it all along.”


Learn what motivates your child.

  • That being said, there is nothing wrong with some external motivation. A reward, even a small one, gives your child stakes in a chore or task he might otherwise try to avoid. Just be sure to focus on positive rather than negative reinforcement—reward him for completing a goal, but don’t punish him or take something away for failing to do so.
  • Whether your child is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, make sure his goal is clearly articulated and as specific and focused as possible. If his goal is, “I want to be better at math,” help him break it down into tangible steps or milestones, like “I want to get 100% on a math assignment” or, “I want to work with my math flashcards three days a week.”
  • Teach your child to make connections between his goals and the specific things he needs to learn or practice in order to accomplish them. Use open-ended questions and let him work out the process on his own as much as possible. (“What do you want to accomplish with your math today? What small things can you do to work on that? What worked well last time, and what can you do differently? How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?”)

Some final thoughts:

  • Your example is powerful. Talk with your child about things you want to accomplish in your own life, what aspects of the process you find rewarding or challenging, and how you’re evaluating and adjusting as you go.
  • Likewise, talk about failure and setbacks. Very few of us accomplish everything we set out to do on the first try. Emphasize that mistakes are expected, that they are how we learn, and that there is almost always a chance to try again.
  • Make sure your goals are right-sized. If your child’s having trouble getting a particular thing done every day, shift to just a couple times a week. Be flexible and try not to overwhelm him with an overly rigid schedule or an unrealistic timeline.