Executive Functioning Skills in the Day of a Child

For kids who struggle with executive functioning skills, there are parts of the day that require more intentional focus in order to successfully progress
through the day. Identifying high-stress or high-processing times during the day can help parents, teachers, and therapists come up with a plan of action for executive functioning skills and kids’ daily activities.



There are many executive functioning skills that kids process through during daily activities at home, school, and in the community.


Executive Functioning Skills and Kids Daily Activities

These are times of the
day that involve multiple executive functions or periods of transition:

Morning routines
Transitions to the car or school bus
Start of the school Day
After school at home
Evening routine
After school activities
Bedtime routines
Social experiences (parties, play groups, group activities)
Community interactions (library, shopping, meals out in a
During these periods of the day, it can become overwhelming
for the child who struggles with executive function skills, particularly if the
child is also challenged with sensory processing difficulties, attention or
hyperactivity, or communication challenges.
So why are these transition periods a high target period for inefficient use of executive functions?  There are a few theories to consider:

1.) Executive functioning depends on the frontal lobes of the brain.  These high-stress times of the day may be impacted by a busy environment, multiple tasks that need to be completed, and other frontal lobe tasks such as judgment, abstract reasoning, planning, and other thinking functions, management of body
movement (motor function), emotions, attention, or motivation.
2.) Each of these high-executive function periods of the day require multiple actions of the body and brain.  There are many tasks that make up the period of before-school routines, for example.  Each of those tasks can throw a child off task and interfere with getting out the door on time, with a jacket, lunchbox, homework, school supplies, notes for the teacher, snack, and whatever else is needed for a typical school day.  A lot of steps with a lot of opportunities for impulsive actions can derail progression of steps to get a job done.

Related read: Try these ideas to address impulse control.
3.) Within the main areas of executive functioning are many smaller scaled steps that go into every task and particularly tasks that include several steps and processing, prioritization of steps: 

     a. Forming ideas to do an action. 
     b. Starting an action. 
     c. Maintaining an action until the step is finished (knowing when a step is done). 
     d. Switching behaviors to do the next step needed. 
     e. Regulating, controlling, and adjusting body actions to deal with changes and
new information along the way. 
     f. Planning a tactic down the road to deal with a new issue or new direction. 
     g. Holding details in the working memory. 
     h. Controlling emotions. 
     i. Thinking abstractly. 
     j. Knowing when the whole task is finished, stopping that task, and moving onto a
different task or activity.
4.) It’s possible that time of day can have an impact on an individual’s ability to process tasks.  Difficult tasks might be easier for some to accomplish earlier in the day when we are at optimal attention and focus and not fatigued. 
When executive function skills interfere with so many parts
of the day, it can be overwhelming for a child! As a result, behaviors, or meltdowns
can result.
So what to do about about children who struggle with task initiation, task
completion, working memory during these high stress-low executive functioning skill
times of the day?
Fall back on proven executive functioning skill strategies that help.  Each child will be different in what works
for them, so identifying tools that work are key.  

Here are a few additional strategies to help with executive function skills.   


There are many executive functioning skills that kids process through during daily activities at home, school, and in the community.


Bennett, C. L. (2008). Individual differences in the influence of time of day on executive functions. Am J Psychol. 121(3):349-61. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18792714
Doty, L. (2012). Executive Function & Memory/Cognition Changes. Retrieved from http://alzonline.phhp.ufl.edu/en/reading/executivefxlatest.pdf. 

Know a child who struggles with impulse control, attention, working memory or other executive functions?Let’s talk about what’s going on behind those impulses!
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    Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.