Executive Functioning in School

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The back to school season, or any transition in school can be chaotic for kids, but it can also be a great time to work on executive functioning skills in a practical way! From shopping for supplies or creating a countdown, to getting on the bus that first day, the options for working on executive functioning in school situations are endless. Continue reading for more information on executive functioning, with the back to school/school transitions edition!

Executive functioning skills during the school day and cognitive skills kids need for transitions in school.

Executive Functioning in School

Every year at the end of summer, there tends to be two “camps”—those who cannot wait to get back into the classroom and those who cannot wait for next summer! Regardless of the type of child you may have, executive functioning skills are critical at every age as this season approaches!

Executive Functioning and Transitioning to Preschool

Think preschoolers do not need or have executive functioning skills? Think again! Studies show that critical development in this area starts far earlier, but especially strong growth occurs during the preschool years. 

As your preschooler starts to prepare for the start of the year, consider the following ways to work on executive functioning development in a positive, age-appropriate approach. By doing so, you give them the chance to start the year out strong!

  • Provide opportunities for play dates, perhaps with classmates, to work on emotional control and problem-solving skills.
  • Begin adjusting wake and bedtimes about 1-2 weeks prior to school starting so that your child can be acclimated before that first day, avoiding any difficulties with initiation or shifting attention.
  • Encourage your child to select their own school supplies, giving them 2-3 items at a time to retrieve in an aisle for their working memory!
  • Model coping strategies, especially if this will be your child’s first exposure to the school setting, addressing emotional control and self-monitoring.
  • Allow your child to help pack their snack or lunch for the day.

Executive Functioning and Transitioning to Elementary School

A child’s independence increases exponentially during the elementary school years. Start off the year on the right foot with these activities!

  • Help your child develop self-reflection skills by discussing what they thought was the best part of summer, their least favorite part, what they are most excited for with school coming back in session, and what they are nervous about with the new school year.
  • Provide opportunities for impulse control, planning, and working memory by giving your child their supply list and allowing them to check items off as they place them in the cart. You may need to model components, such as having a notebook/folder set of particular colors. 
  • Encourage your child’s organization skills by having them label their school supplies with their name and pack their backpack
  • Give your child the opportunity for more independence and accountability to pack their own lunchbox. You can still have some control in this by organizing your refrigerator and pantry with designated labels, such as taking one item out of each container on the bottom shelf. 

Executive Functioning in Middle School

The middle school years are filled with so many changes! Help your child prepare for these changes by integrating some of these activities:

  • Use a calendar to set up regular family meetings, including all members of the household. This allows for communication lines to be kept open, preventing any major hiccups, while promoting your child’s ability to manage their impulses (interruptions, especially!) and control their emotions, along with reflecting on things that might need to be changed. 
  • Begin allowing for more and more independence with tasks, such as packing up their backpack each night, fading back prompts with homework, and encouraging their use of a planner. 
  • Provide opportunities for developing self-advocacy, having your middle school direct communication with teachers versus jumping in yourself when conflicts arise. While you are still there to support your student, this is a life-long skill that they will thank you for later!

Executive Functioning in High School

Your child is now off to high school! This is a pivotal time in a teenager’s life—an opportunity for them to prepare for adulthood while still having the active support of their family. Check out these ideas to encourage continued growth in executive functioning skills as your high schooler heads back to school. 

  • Have a teen driver in your house? Let them drive to the store with their school supply list and get their needed supplies! If you will be paying for the supplies, send them with an allowance to promote money management. For an additional challenge, give them a set time that they need to complete their shopping in to promote time management! 
  • Continue to encourage your teenager to manage conflicts or difficulties with teachers themselves prior to jumping in, because soon, they will not be living in your house and will need to do this themselves!
  • Allow your child to have more of a say in which electives they take. This is a great opportunity for exploration—you never know what class might pique their interest for a future career. 
  • Provide opportunities for your child to learn multiple note-taking methods to organize information in classes. 

More help with executive functioning in kids

Executive functioning skills develop throughout a child’s school years. Try some of these with your child, and have a great year!

Impulse Control Journal the OT Toolbox

Kids of all ages (including adults) can use The Impulse Control Journal to work on self-regulation, self-control, planning, prioritization, and executive functioning skills in everyday tasks. These hands-on journaling sheets are perfect for all ages. Grab the Impulse Control Journal here.

The OT Toolbox contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L

This post was written by contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist in the Madison, WI area. Emily participated in the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association’s Emerging Leaders Program (2016), earned her level 1 digital badge in autism from the American Occupational Therapy Association (2017), received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Chatham University (2018), and was appointed the South-Central District Co-Chair of the Wisconsin Occupational Therapy Association (2019). Emily has presented at both state and national conferences and is passionate about professional development. While trained as a generalist, Emily particularly enjoys working with clients with autism spectrum disorder and challenges related to executive functioning skills.