Modifying the Environment to Improve Executive Functioning


Executive functioning is a term used to describe a set of mental skills that center around starting, sustaining, and completing goals.

These skills are controlled by the brain's frontal lobe and include things like:

  1. Organization: The ability to organize and prioritize tasks.
  2. Time management: The ability to make realistic estimates of how much time an activity will take, and how to allocate your time use effectively.
  3. Attention: The capacity to focus on a task and ignore distractions.
  4. Initiation: The ability to motivate ourselves to start tasks and behaviors.
  5. Working memory: Holding and manipulating information in mind while engaging in other tasks.
  6. Self-control: Managing emotions, as well as regulating one’s impulses and behavior.

One of the most important tasks of childhood is to develop effective executive functioning skills. However, certain conditions may impact a person’s ability to develop effective skills and strategies.

Conditions such as ADHD, autism, cognitive disabilities, and depression may impact a child’s ability to develop these skills. Additionally, sudden changes, losses, or moves may also impact a child’s ability to effectively use these skills. As such, it can benefit most parents and caregivers to learn strategies that can help their child if they ever struggle with this skill-set. Although there are many different approaches one can take, one of the easier ways parents can help their child with executive functioning difficulties is to modify the environment to help their child stay more organized and on-task. Below are a few different ways that parents and caregivers can modify the environment to help a child with executive functioning difficulties. All of these are taken from the book Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.

  • Add barriers and make items locations off limits to help children be less likely to act on impulses. Add locks on drawers you don’t want children able to access. Place breakable objects out of children’s reach, store the video-game controllers when the child isn’t using them, use parental locks on TV, etc…
  • Reduce distractions when your child is doing homework, chores, or other tasks that require sustained attention. Institute ‘quiet time’ with no TV or media, or use white-noise machines or instrumental music in the background to tune out other distracting noises.
  • Provide organizational structures to help your child stay neat and organized. Using cubbies, chests, hampers, and trash cans to help your child know that everything has a place. It might be helpful to talk with your child about what organization means for whatever context you are talking about (example: What a clean room specifically looks like). Or even taking pictures of what the space should look like so there can be a comparison your child can use.
  • Reduce the complexity of an activity or an event in order to help children have predictability and tools to problem solve. For example, engaging in small social gatherings for your child, instead of large ones. Having structured activities, rather than free-form activities. Giving your child specific rules for how to behave. (example: “Take turns with that toy” instead of just saying “Play nice.”)
  • Occasionally, change the social mix to ensure your child learns how to flexibly deal with all different kinds of people and situations. However, be prepared to provide more supervision than usual, and let your child know in advance what situation is occurring, and what you will be doing to supervise them (example: “If I see that you are getting uncomfortable, we are going to take a quick break away from everyone to calm down”).

In addition to modifying the environment, parents and caregivers can help children with executive functioning difficulties through many other means, including changing how tasks are presented to your child, and changing how you interact with your child. For more information, I recommend reading Smart but Scattered, as it lists various skills and techniques that can benefit any caregiver and any child. Additionally, parents and caregivers can receive training and coaching in how to help their child with executive functioning difficulties. Executive Skills Coaching, Applied Behavior Analysis, and Family Therapy are all ways in which parents can receive direct feedback and skills to better support their child.

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