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Schooling at home: Promoting growth of ‘executive skills’

Parents and caregivers can help children develop executive skills, the skills that are used to get things done.

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a set of resources created by a team led by Peg Dawson of the Study Group on Executive Skills sponsored by the New Hampshire Association of School Psychologists, with contributions from the following individuals: Rebecca Bagatz, Liz Casey, Cheryl Clark, Bethany Fleming, Peggy Howard-Solari, Erin Preston, Lori Jabar, Rachael Ramsey, Kate Salvati, Katie Scheffer, Mary Ellen Spain, and Felicia Sperry. Other contributors included faculty member Marisa Marraccini and doctoral student Meagan Padro.

Our kids are at home, with the expectation that they will continue to learn while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re struggling with figuring out how to navigate your kids’ schooling while you’re doing all the other things you have to do to keep your lives stitched together, you are not alone.

These are uncharted waters for everyone — teachers, parents, and kids, alike — and it will take time for us all to adjust to “the new normal.” There’s no prescribed framework or template to work from because we’ve never been here before.

It’s a work-in-progress for all of us, and none of us will get it perfect in the first pass. So, cut yourself some slack, use some positive self-talk (“We will survive.” “Perfect is not the goal here.”), and as you fall into bed at night, pat yourself on the back for getting through the day.

Introduction to executive skills

Teachers work every day to help their students develop a set of skills called “executive skills.”

Executive skills refer to the thinking, or cognitive, processes required to plan, organize, and execute activities. They are the skills that make goal-directed behavior possible. They are the skills required to execute tasks. Or, as translated by an elementary school teacher to match the language of the second graders she taught, these are the skills you need to get things done.

Executive skills are frontal lobe functions that begin to emerge shortly after birth but take 25 years or longer to fully mature. It’s helpful to think about them in two groups: Foundational Skills that develop earlier and more Advanced Skills, that develop later (and that often incorporate the earlier developing Foundational Skills).

Foundational Executive Skills

  • Response inhibition or impulse control
  • Working memory
  • Emotional control
  • Flexibility
  • Sustained attention
  • Task Initiation
  • Advanced Executive Skills

  • Organization
  • Planning/Prioritization
  • Time management
  • Goal-directed persistence
  • Metacognition (problem-solving, self-monitoring, self-evaluation)
  • Let’s connect these skills to school. Teachers provide structure and support, which makes it easier for children with immature executive skills to function successfully in the classroom. They give kids a schedule and provide lessons and activities that give children the structure to help them learn to initiate tasks and sustain attention. They alternate between desk-work and activity-based learning, they give kids the chance to collaborate with peers and problem solve at a developmentally appropriate level.

    When young kids aren’t ready to use skills independently (such as all the advanced skills listed above), teachers do the planning and prioritizing for kids, they monitor and help them manage time, and they give them organizational structures, such as building in time to help them clean out their desks or instructing them on how to keep notebooks or planners.

    No parent provides the amount of structure that the typical teacher does — in part because no parent is trying to manage 20-30 kids at the same time! So, when schooling suddenly starts taking place at home rather than at school, parents are understandably unprepared to provide the kind of support that children with just-developing executive skills need.

    The good news is that with a few small steps, parents can do a lot to help kids practice these skills — skills that will serve them well once they return to school and go back to the lives they used to know.

    Supporting executive skills in children of all ages

    Following are strategies that will help make the days at home more manageable, but more than that, they are strategies that will help children exercise and practice a set of skills that are not only critical to school success, but that help adults manage their jobs, their homes and their relationships.

    Put in place daily routines. This should include at a minimum 1) what time kids are expected to get up in the morning; 2) what time the work of the day will begin; and 3) some expectation about how much time will be spent on schoolwork or how much work will be done over the course of the day.

    This will differ for kids of different ages. We know that the sleep patterns of teens shift and that school start times are often not well-suited to the teen’s biology and circadian rhythms. So, for teens, it may make sense to start the day later than for younger children, who tend to be more alert early in the morning.

    Schedule frequent work breaks. With elementary-aged children, lessons or activities should take no more than 15-20 minutes, with a 10-minute break between activities. While this can be seen as a general recommendation for children and pre-teens, your child may need an adjustment — especially if your child has any kind of learning or attention problem, since for these kids, learning requires more effort and energy.

    Building variety into the breaks helps. Some might involve movement. For instance, provides short, fun videos featuring different kinds of exercises that are appealing to elementary-aged children. Others might involve educational games. Writing fun activities on slips of paper and having children draw one at random introduces an element of surprise that children like.

    Many schools provide parents with an abundance of on-line resources they can draw on, not only for lessons but also for “down-time” activities.

    Although middle and high school students often sit in classes that last anywhere from 45-90 minutes, parents should not expect them to engage that long in school work. Even at those grade levels, teachers typically don’t spend more than 25 minutes on a single task before switching to something else. And the classroom offers more opportunity for collaboration and social engagement than home schooling does. If your child’s middle or high school is not offering on-line classes in real time, then parents can ask kids of that age to create a realistic schedule for how they will spend their time.

    Create a daily schedule for kids to follow. Or, with older students, ask them to create a schedule (with guidelines or parameters). Parents and kids respond to varying levels of structure when it comes to schedules.

    While having a schedule provides a skeleton that gives the day shape and substance, don’t overdo it. Because teachers are managing large groups of children and have a set curriculum they need to cover, they sometimes have to interrupt good work. If you find your child is engaged in something meaningful, educational, productive, or creative, let her have the satisfaction of seeing through to completion something that’s important to her. Just reconfigure the rest of the day or change tomorrow’s schedule.

    If you find your child avoiding some tasks in favor of others, talk with her about “first work, then play” — or switching off between non-preferred and preferred tasks.

    Use the opportunity to find non-school ways to support executive skills. This might mean working on planning by having kids plan how they will spend their time once the school work for the day is behind them, or working on organization by having kids design and maintain their workspace. They can work on time management by learning to estimate how long it takes to complete tasks and perhaps keeping a log. offers a free online timer where students can log the task or activity they’re working on, start the timer when they begin the activity and turn it off when they’re done. The website maintains the log, so they can track how much time they’re spending on a variety of tasks.

    Identify executive skills strengths, weaknesses

    Finally, you may want to identify your child’s executive skill strengths and weaknesses and help them think about ways they can use their strengths more effectively or strategies they can use to build their weaker skills.

    Informal surveys for doing this can be found in books by Dawson & Guare (e.g., Smart but Scattered), but parents may be able to do this simply by reading through the definitions in Appendix 1 and deciding which ones represent strengths for their kids and which ones might be challenges (keeping in mind, of course, that none of these skills are fully operational until age 25 or later).

    In Appendix 4, we’ve given you some suggestions for ways you can use the home-schooling experience to help kids practice executive skills. We recommend selecting one skill and 1-2 activities to focus on to start with.

    For children at the elementary level, we generally recommend that parents select one of the first six foundational skills to focus on. At the middle/high school levels, the advanced skills may be reasonable targets.

    However, if your child has significant executive skill challenges, especially if they are receiving special education services or are struggling with poor grades in school due to weak executive skills, we generally recommend focusing on the foundational skills even if the child is a teenager.