Building Executive Functioning and Interview with Sarah Ward

by Elizabeth Sautter and Dr. Rebecca Branstetter  

Does your child seem forgetful?

Do they do things at the last minute?

Do they act before thinking?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, your child might have delays in the area of executive functioning, and there are things you can do to help!

Let’s start out by defining what executive functioning actually means and translate it into language that is easy to understand:

Executive functioning (EF) is basically everything you need to manage things and meet goals.  It’s the boss or the CEO of your brain that helps to initiate, plan, organize, regulate, time manage…all of the things that take higher-level thinking, not just things that are simple or automatic for our brain to achieve.

There are a ton of EF skills involved in being successful in school, which go far beyond. academics. These include managing emotions and social situations.  

Many people who struggle with emotional regulation and/or social communication have executive functioning challenges because, as you have seen in this recent blog on EQ and this one on Social Competence, those areas take a lot of management to be successful.   

In short, although EF skills are essential for academics, there are also social and emotional components to the equation. Even within a small conversation, there is so much to manage in terms of knowing what to say and how to act.  Not to mention managing emotions within each situation.

So, how do parents and educators support kids who struggle? 

Let’s start by hearing from an expert in the area of EF, Sarah Ward, where she shares her simple definition of EF and her Match the Picture Strategy (listed below as tip #2) in an interview with us.

Here are three favorite tips you can try with your child:

#1-Ask, Don’t Tell!

When we tell kids what to do, and what the steps are in a routine or activity, we can inadvertently deny the opportunity for them to use their own brain, specifically their frontal lobe thinking skills. 

Additionally, some children’s brains shut down when they think they are being lectured to, which means that telling them what to do might get ignored.

The solution? 

Turn a command into a question. 

For example, if you want your child to pick up her room, instead of saying, “You have to pick up your room now” you could ask, “What is your plan for picking up your room?” or “What do you think is an easy first step for picking up your room?”

#2- Go Visual to prevent the “Charlie Brown” phenomenon

If you’ve ever seen the cartoon Charlie Brown, all of the adults who speak sound unintelligible – you know the sound, “wah wah wah”. 

This can happen with our own kids, where it seems like they are tuning us out and not hearing the words. To help your child start and stick with a task, instead of describing the steps, or making a written list, go visual and show them an image of what you are asking them to do.

To give an example, one of our favorite strategies with using visual supports to build EF skills is from Sarah Ward and is called “match the picture.” Help your child build a mental image of the final product or end-game. For instance, if you want your child to pick up her room, take a picture of a picked-up room so the next time it is clear what you expect of them.  Next time the room is messy, show the picture of the clean room (photo above on the right) and ask your child to “match the picture.”

#3- Build “Stop and Think Skills” through Games

Make it fun! 

We’ve got a few examples of games that build EF muscles, and they are fun too. These games help children process information, control impulses, and much more.

Red Light, Green Light – kids move on the green light and stop on the red light.  If you move on red, you are usually “out.” But, we recommend that you do not make the kids “out” because the kids who struggle with EF and sensory processing will get out too fast and those are the kids who need the practice most!

Mother May I – one child is the leader.  The rest of the children ask: “Mother May I…” take a certain number of steps, hops, jumps or leaps to get to the leader.  The leader approves or disapproves.

Simon Says – Children have to perform an action only when the leader says, “Simon Says…”  For example, if the leader says, “Simon Says touch your nose” and all the children touch their nose.  If the leader says “Touch your nose,” no one should touch their nose.  

Follow the Leader – The leader performs different actions and the children have to follow the actions exactly.

As parents and educators, we want to help the kids we care about learn how to successfully function in all areas of their lives. Executive functioning skills are crucial to learning because these skills help all kids grow into adults who can navigate the ins and outs of the world we live in.

If you know other parents, caregivers, or educators who might be interested in this topic and how to support children, please share this information.  

**Sarah Ward was also a contributor to the book Make Social Learning Stick, along with other leading experts.  For more tips and strategies like these, pick up your copy at:


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