Executive function challenges and learning: 6 ways to help your grade-schooler

By Amanda Morin

Executive Functioning Issues and Learning: 6 Ways to Help Your Grade-Schooler, boy talking to dad

At a glance

  • Kids who struggle with executive function may have trouble solving problems in new ways.

  • Group work can be difficult for some kids with executive function challenges.

  • There are ways to help grade-schoolers learn to organize information and check their work.

Your child’s trouble with executive function may become more obvious in the later years of grade school. It’s a time of transition for kids, with a growing number of school demands. The more help and support you can provide, the smoother that transition will be.

can impact learning in many ways during grade school. Here are some common challenges and ways you can help.

Learning challenge #1: Difficulty following steps

Your child has to write a paragraph on a story the teacher read in class, but can’t figure out how to organize the information.

The role of executive function challenges: It can be hard to plan out work steps. Kids may have trouble coming up with a strategy for tackling an assignment.

How to help: Teach your child to write a “hamburger paragraph.” The top bun is the sentence that introduces the idea. The burger and fixings are the details that back up the idea. The bottom bun is the sentence that summarizes and holds everything together. This type of graphic organizing tool can help kids at different grade levels handle all sorts of writing assignments.

Learning challenge #2: Inflexibility

You try to help your child double-check answers to long division problems by using multiplication. But your child gets upset and says it’s not the way the teacher showed the class to check their work.

The role of executive function challenges: It can be hard to see that there’s more than one way to solve a problem. Kids may think in very concrete terms.

How to help: Have your child show you the teacher’s method. See if the teacher can show your child a few different ways to check that would be acceptable.

Learning challenge #3: Struggles with prioritizing information

Your child wrote a book report, but it’s missing the most important plot details in the book.

The role of executive function challenges: It can be hard to prioritize information. Kids may struggle to sort out the key details.

How to help: Help your child learn active reading strategies, like imagining the book as a movie. It can help your child figure out which details are necessary to retell the story.

Learning challenge #4: Difficulty gauging their own work

Your child has trouble knowing which operation to use on word problems. Even after you’ve gone over the clue words to look for, your child doesn’t know what to do.

The role of executive function challenges: It can be hard to self-monitor work. Kids may not be able to tell if an answer looks reasonable.

How to help: Help your child create a list of phrases that signal addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Teach your child to underline the phrases when reading a word problem and write the symbol above them. Your child can compare the underlined phrases to the list before setting up the equation.

Learning challenge #5: Poor time management

Instead of working on a long-term science project a little at a time, your child tries to do the whole project a few days before the presentation.

The role of executive function challenges: It can be hard to manage time. Kids may have trouble estimating how much time a project takes to complete.

How to help: Ask if your child’s teacher can provide a breakdown of all the different steps to the project. You can help your child create a project calendar that sets up due dates over the span of a few weeks. In time, your child can learn to create project calendars without your help.

Learning challenge #6: Trouble controlling emotions

Your child is working on a group project and gets mad when the other kids want to do things a different way.

The role of executive function challenges: It can be hard to control emotions. Kids may struggle to understand or accept other people’s points of view.

How to help: Practice situations together — you can pretend to be a classmate. Role-play scenarios that might come up, including differences of opinion. Let your child practice statements like, “I don’t understand your idea,” or “Here’s why I’m suggesting this idea.”

Grade school — especially the transition from third to fourth grade — involves demands that your child may not have faced before. It can be tough for a child with executive function challenges to manage the changing expectations. But there are ways to help.

Key takeaways

  • Your child’s teacher may help you find strategies to help with homework.

  • Graphic organizers, checklists, and calendars can help your child organize information.

  • Role-playing can help your child learn how to interact with classmates.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.