Strategies for Managing Executive Functioning Challenges

How parents, partners, and loved ones can support people with executive functioning difficulties

Executive functions

Neurodivergent folks struggle with executive functions (EF). There are roughly five categories of EFs, and each person will struggle in different areas.

In this article, I will provide concrete examples of how each EF might look at home, as well as child-centred strategies for supporting loved ones in these areas.

Please note: These strategies are intended as supports or accommodations that parents, partners, or loved ones can make in order to make room for different ways of doing and being.

Accepting and appreciating differences will allow neurodivergent strengths and unique abilities to shine, rather than expecting neurodivergent people to force themselves to do things the neurotypical way.

Image created by author

The five executive functioning categories are as follows:

  1. Cognitive flexibility
  2. Organization
  3. Working memory
  4. Inhibition
  5. Emotion regulation

Cognitive Rigidity

Cognitive flexibility — the opposite of rigidity — describes one’s ability to adapt to change. Children with executive functioning difficulties often struggle with this.

What this looks like at home:

  • Inflexible cognitive style, difficulty adjusting and adapting to change.
  • Difficulty with transitions, especially when switching from a preferred activity to a less-favoured activity.
  • Becomes anxious or upset with unexpected changes in routine.
  • Black-and-white thinking, rigid with rules or expectations.
  • Tries to be the adult and “police” the behaviour of siblings, peers, or even adults.

For example, if my son usually gets x number of treats for dessert and one evening he is offered a lesser amount, he will have difficulty accepting this arbitrary limitation of his treats (understandably so, I might add!).

If my son is highly engaged in something, it is quite difficult for him to switch to something else, especially if he considers it less interesting. If he’s enjoying a book, it can be quite a challenge for him to transition to getting ready for school (again, understandably so, I have a hard time putting down books too!).

If either of us has our minds set and have mentally prepared for a particular activity or are expecting one set of events, and there is a change on short-notice, both of us can get quite thrown off.

Unexpected changes cause us anxiety, especially if we’ve spent time mentally preparing for something that is no longer occurring.

Strategies to help

  • Provide as much advance warning as possible before changes and transitions.
  • Don’t dismiss, minimize, or invalidate someone’s experience just because you don’t understand it.
  • Respond with empathy and patience when a change in routine is upsetting.
  • Be as fair and consistent as possible to help keep things predictable.
  • Pick your battles! If someone is used to something being a particular way, or had their mind set on something, and it’s reasonable to accommodate, there’s no harm in doing so.
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Lead by example

While it’s important to help children (and adults!) develop mental flexibility, we can’t force it upon them. We teach this flexibility by first role-modelling it.

If we’re inflexible and unwilling to compromise when it’s reasonable to do so, we certainly can’t expect our children to learn these skills when we haven’t set an example for them.

The flip side

Cognitive rigidity isn’t all bad, it can also be a cognitive strength. The ability to hyperfocus, or dive deep into a subject or project, can be highly productive and enjoyable.


Children with executive functioning difficulties may struggle with organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and getting started on work-like tasks.

What this looks like at home:

  • Messy bedroom with books, toys, and clothes all over the floor.
  • Often plays with or uses something, then leaves it where it was and forgets to put it away.
  • Forgets to put things back where they belong, then can’t find them later.
  • Difficulties with planning.
  • Easily loses track of time.
  • Has difficulty estimating how long something will take to complete — often underestimates how long something will take, and then ends up rushed to get ready on time.

Strategies to help

  • Use visual reminders and visual schedules to help with structure and predictability.
  • Have a family calendar and daily routines posted somewhere visible where everyone can see and refer to them.
  • Provide a visual reference (such as a photo) as a reminder of what something can or will look like when it’s organized and tidy.
  • Schedule in time for organizing and tidying. Keeping on top of it is the best way because messes can become overwhelming quickly.
  • If you have asked your child to clean up and they feel overwhelmed by it, offer to help. You can chat or listen to music while you do it, or make it into a game. Often once they get started, they realize it’s not as difficult as they were anticipating.
  • Use timers and clocks to help keep track of passing time, teach children how to tell time, and teach time-management strategies.
  • If your child frequently underestimates how long a particular routine or task takes, have them time themselves going at their usual pace, so they have taught themselves how long it generally takes.
  • If feasible, smart speakers or similar technology can help with scheduled reminders and routines.
  • Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps — it doesn’t all have to be completed at once, and it’s okay to take breaks along the way.
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Working Memory

Working memory allows us to hold information in mind while mentally working with it. Children who struggle with short-term memory may seem to lack comprehension, but it is usually more a matter of difficulty showing what they know.

What this looks like at home:

  • Remembers complex concepts and understands big-picture ideas, but has difficulty remembering minute details or specific bits of information.
  • Gets side-tracked easily when following multi-step directions, often forgets what the next step was and has to ask for instructions to be repeated.
  • Gets distracted easily and forgets what they were supposed to be doing.

For example, my son will go upstairs to get dressed for school. I’ll walk by his room 5 minutes later to find him reading on his bed, still not dressed. He’s not doing this on purpose, he got distracted by a good book, and completely forgot what he was supposed to be doing.

I do the same thing sometimes (okay, frequently). When I’m cooking, I have to set timers, or I will definitely burn something. I get impatient waiting for food to be ready, so I start doing something else while I’m waiting. I become engrossed in whatever I’m doing and completely forget I was in the middle of cooking a meal!

Strategies to help

  • Provide notes, visual aids, and visual reminders — use timers where helpful.
  • Break complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Practice repeating out loud, or quietly to yourself, when you have to remember something important.
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Impulsivity, or disinhibition, can be one of the more difficult executive functioning challenges. It’s very important to remember that impulsivity is not a choice someone is making, our impulsive behaviour results from our neurological differences.

What this looks like at home:

  • Speaking louder than necessary or interrupting others.
  • Difficulty waiting their turn or waiting for things in general.
  • May make jokes at inappropriate times, especially if they get a laugh from others.
  • Gets carried away and does things they later regret.
  • May be more likely to resort to physical methods of resolving conflict, and to struggle with emotional impulsivity.
  • Acts without thinking, then can’t explain the reasoning for their behaviour (because there was none — hence the term impulsivity).

Impulsive behaviour is defined as:

“behaviour characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences of an action, particularly one that involves taking risks.” 

— American Psychological Association

Impulsivity is a struggle with self-control. It stems from complex neurological differences in development, particularly in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the area of the brain responsible for self-management.

Impulse control is not simply about “mind over matter”, nor having better self-discipline, it’s a matter of developmental maturity. There are well-documented neurological differences in divergent brains like ours.

Strategies to help

  • Patience. Understand your child is struggling with neurodevelopment that lags behind that of their peers or siblings close in age.
  • Your child already recognizes they are different and aren’t able to regulate themselves as well as their peers or siblings, so chastising them won’t help — they already feel badly about this.
  • Create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance at home. Their skills will improve when they feel supported enough to practice them and it’s safe to make mistakes.
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The flip side

Impulsivity isn’t all bad — in fact, neurodivergent traits are neither good nor bad, they’re simply different from the majority. Impulsivity can lead to spontaneity, creativity, and bold decision-making.

Role model

If you just caught yourself snapping at your child, process what happened out loud: “oh dear, that came out a little harsher than I meant it, I’m sorry. I am feeling a little frustrated, I should go get myself a drink of water and take a breath before we have this conversation.”

Not only have you just shown your child how to self-regulate, you’ve also role-modelled accepting responsibility for one’s behaviour, making amends, and using a strategy for addressing the challenge.

You’ve also shown your child that your frustration was not their fault — we are responsible for our own emotional reactions, not them.

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Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation encompasses the following abilities:

  • Inhibiting unhelpful behaviour affiliated with strong emotion.
  • Self-soothing physiological arousal induced by strong affect.
  • Refocusing attention away from the triggering event.
  • Organizing for coordinated action and service for an external goal.

Many children with executive functioning difficulties will struggle with emotional self-regulation.

What this looks like at home:

  • Experiences big and intense feelings.
  • Seems to “overreact” to things.
  • May seem to go from calm to explosive very quickly.
  • Tends to lack self-awareness about what caused their dysregulation, and with the physical sensations in their body associated with their emotions.
  • May become overwhelmed easily.
  • Seems to take a long time to calm down after becoming upset.

Strategies to help:

  • Focus on the parent-child relationship.
  • It takes time and practice to learn what strategies and supports work best for your child, including what helps them calm down when they’re upset.
  • Help your child learn and begin to identify their own physical sensations when they are beginning to feel dysregulated.
  • Teach your child to pay attention to their body and utilize their strategies when they notice these changes (this takes a lot of practice — a LOT, so please be patient!).
  • Role-model this when you feel yourself becoming dysregulated to show your child what this looks like in action.
  • Provide a quiet, private area of your home where your child can go to decompress if they begin to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or in need of a quiet moment to self-regulate.
Created by author

Important: *Never use this space as a punishment or consequence, and never force your child to go there. This is not a “time out” spot, it’s a “chill out corner”, or a quiet and safe space made available for self-regulation.


  • Co-regulation happens when we remain calm, validate our child’s experiences and feelings, and offer a comforting presence.
  • When we co-regulate with our children, we show them we will keep them safe and continue to love and support them, even when their feelings are big and intense.

Created by author — (© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB)

Overall executive functions

A very important way adults can help children improve their overall executive functioning is something you may not expect: PLAY.

Image created by author

The importance of play

The more time children spend in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning.

The most consistent positive findings, and most commonly measured outcomes associated with physical activity, have been with executive functions, particularly inhibition and working memory.

Outdoor play is particularly beneficial for children in developing and improving their executive functioning.

Created by author — (Data from the National Museum of Play, 2013)

Don’t forget, play is good for adults too!

Neurology is not a choice

None of these difficulties are simply “mind over matter”, nor having better self-discipline, they’re all a matter of developmental maturity. None of us can just “try harder” to not have ADHD or a learning disability; we can’t will away our symptoms or neurological differences through increased effort.

We cannot overcome our symptoms or neurological differences through increased effort.

It can be incredibly trying, frustrating, even exhausting to manage challenging behaviours, especially when you have other children in your home to care for.

When you feel yourself losing patience with your child, remember their difficulties are a matter of skill (and neurodevelopment), not will. If you take the time to connect, guide, and role-model you will save yourself and your child unnecessary frustration.

Rather than criticizing and chastising, you’ll be equipping them with the tools needed to handle the situation more effectively the next time.

Most importantly, you’ll show them they’re not “bad” kids, they just need to develop strategies for managing their struggles, and you’ll love them no matter what.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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How Executive Dysfunction Impacts Daily Life

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Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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