Executive Function: What all happy and successful students have in common

There is a lot of pressure on students to do well in school – which means getting consistently high scores on their tests and good grades on their report cards. Surprisingly, your child’s ability to do well in school over time is not determined by their IQ.

Instead, the most successful students share a set of daily habits, that when combined, create a functional daily routine. This routine helps them to overcome common challenges and meet their goals consistently.  Students who are able to independently maintain a routine have a high level of executive function. 

Executive function, put very simply, is your child’s ability to get stuff done — especially stuff that they find challenging or boring. Their ability to plan, organize, start and finish an assignment is just as important to completing an assignment as their understanding of the content of it.

In fact, many students who are highly gifted but struggle with executive function often end up with low grades and low self-esteem. Struggling students are often labeled as ‘lazy’ or ‘underperforming,’ but the real issue is that they simply do not have the ability to keep track of their materials, tasks, and time. The good news is that with the right approach and guidance, your child can develop a set of habits that allow them to function independently and successfully in school and beyond. 

Signs of a Dysfunctional Routine

Students who struggle in this area tend show very specific signs that are easy to recognize. They often have a set of habits that create a dysfunctional routine – one that does not allow them to successfully and independently reach the expectations placed upon them both in school and at home.

If your child stays up for hours finishing homework, if they seem disinterested in learning, or if they try to avoid homework at any cost, then they most likely struggle with Executive Function.  Their inability to manage their day successfully makes them feel overwhelmed and not in control. Students who are overwhelmed cope with this stress by avoiding things that stress them out.

Common avoidance behaviors include:

• Spending too much time online or on video games

• Taking long naps

• Cleaning & organizing their room (compulsively)

• Being a perfectionist or rushing through work

• Procrastinating on assignments or studying

• Defiant or risky behavior, being argumentative

• Hiding or lying about their homework & grades

3 Proven Techniques to Develop Executive Function

As a parent, it can be frustrating to witness your child avoiding their responsibilities. You may find yourself micro managing them, taking away distracting electronics, or spending hours negotiating with them so that they change their habits.  Often, you feel like you are choosing between confronting their behavior (causing tension), and avoiding the subject all together (keeping the peace).

Instead, apply the three proven strategies below to help your child transform their habits and create a functional routine.

1) Communicate with your child without passing judgment.

When your child is stressed out, they do not listen to logic or reasoning. All they know is that they feel overwhelmed and afraid. They also often feel ashamed or morally wrong for their lack of success.  To get them to accept your help, you must first acknowledge how they feel and let them know you are there to help, not punish. Next time your child is having difficulty, use the below phrase to help you get through to them:

“I understand that you feel __________________, what can I do to help?”

If your child is being defiant or acting out, help them understand how their behavior is affecting you, and tell them what they can do to get what they want. Use an “I message” to avoid passing judgment:

“When you…
It makes me feel…
And I would like you to…”

Example: “When you interrupt me, it makes me feel that you are not listening, and I would like you to let me finish my thought before you reply.”

The best part of using an assertive tone instead of a bossy or authoritative one is that your child will feel safe to share their feeling with you, and learn to communicate more effectively based on your example.  Both of the above approaches to communication unarm your child’s defense mechanisms and help you relieve the tension. They also help your child effectively manage their emotions.

2) Help your child design their day

Telling your child to simply get their work done rarely translates to them taking action. To a child with executive function issues, you may as well be asking them to run a marathon. The very idea of managing the number of details it takes to complete their work causes them to feel overwhelmed and avoid their work altogether.

You may notice that when it’s an activity they prefer to do, and is rewarding— like playing their favorite video game or building a Lego fortress— they have no trouble! This is because that activity makes them happy, even if it presents a challenge.  If you help them get to their preferred activities by helping them design their day, they will be much more likely to focus on completing tasks they find difficult or boring.

How to do this:

1. Let your child know you will spend 10 minutes writing down the steps they will take to get their work done so they can get to the fun stuff they would rather be doing.

2. Help them create a step-by step routine that lists the tasks they need to complete.

3. Ask them how much time, realistically, each task will take and write that down in a column to the right.

4. Write the start and end time for each task in a third column.

5. Finally, help them organize the materials they need to complete each task.

6. Once this process is done, your child should set a timer and get working (using the microwave is fine, but it’s great to have a timer on hand. Setting a timer is a great way to initiate a task and help them stay focused throughout).

Many times students avoid their work because they over-estimate how much time it will take. Other times, they procrastinate because they under-estimate the time they need.  Both approaches lead to stress and more work avoidance. The more your child practices managing their time, the better they will become at it.
Do not forget to plan ahead for free-play, fun with friends and quality time with the family so that your child always has something to look forward to once their tasks are complete. Kids avoid their responsibilities to “sneak” in free time if they believe they won’t have time for their preferred activities later on.

3) Notice and appreciate even the smallest steps in the right direction

Your child needs to hear more positive communication from you than negative. This allows them to feel the immediate positive benefit for their efforts. If you help your child feel good for making positive choices throughout their day, they will associate that warm and fuzzy feeling with their action. On the other hand, if most of the communication between you is perceived by them to be negative, then nothing they do can ever please you, and they are better off just doing what they feel like at the moment.

Make sure to praise the effort instead of the outcome to reinforce and nurture positive behaviors. For example:

“You put your homework into your backpack without me reminding you, awesome!”

“I noticed you remembered to write your name on your homework, way to go!”

“I see you’re studying two days before a test, that’s smart!”

“Thank you for asking for my help, I’m always happy to help you.”

No matter how small the gain, emphasize the massive effort it took your child to take that first step toward a better habit. Changing a habit –especially one that gives your child immediate gratification—is extremely difficult.  So, don’t just notice when there is a positive outcome, but pay attention to the real efforts your child makes to meet a goal.


Executive functions are a set of skills that enable your child to plan ahead, organize, start, and complete a task.

Your child’s ability to do well in school over time is not determined by their IQ.

Habits can form either a functional routine that helps your child address daily challenges and reach goals, or a dysfunctional routine that results in your child avoiding responsibilities in order to relieve stress.

You can help your child develop better executive function with three proven techniques:

1. Communicate without passing judgment. Acknowledge your child’s emotions and use the ‘I message’ to communicate assertively.

2. Help your child design a simple routine that gets them through the work they don’t feel like doing so they can get to their favorite activities.

3. Be mindful of the small steps forward and each bit of effort your child sincerely applies to reach their goals.

These techniques will not create a perfect routine, but a functional one – do not expect perfection, only progress.

No two situations are the same – once you understand why these techniques work, you and your child can adjust how to apply them in a specific way that works for them.

Before you apply these techniques, you must understand two things. First, these techniques are not focused on improving grades.  Better grades are simply a byproduct of students who have functional routines.  Second, there is no magic formula that works for every person. The reason why the techniques above are effective is because they allow your child to adapt and adjust to challenges instead of avoiding them. Therefore, it is important that you focus on increasing your child’s emotional well being while decreasing stress so that they feel the immediate benefits of their effort.

By Yulia Rafailova, Tutor Doctor