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  • Writer's pictureLindsey Valente

5 Ways to Build & Polish Executive Functioning Skills This Summer

Summer is a time to relax and move a little bit slower than we do during the busy school year. We plan and look forward to camps, days at the beach, pool days, and travel. The thought of doing academics in the summer isn’t usually appealing to kids nor parents who need a break from trying to oversee the academic routine. 

Don’t let all that hard work from the school year go out the window this summer! There are simple ways that you can promote executive functioning skills without overwhelming your child or yourself. 

First, we hear of “EF” so much more frequently now, but what does it mean? 

  • Executive: Having the power to put plans, actions, or laws into effect.

  • Functions: A set of mental processes that govern our conscious decisions and voluntary actions. 

When teachers and educators speak of executive function skills, they are referring to skills that a student needs to successfully fulfill the attainment of certain goals. No one is born with executive functioning skills. They develop over time. A child's experiences and environment can have a profound effect during this period of development. Executive functioning can be taught and learned because it deals with conscious decisions. No one can maintain or improve performance in anything if not practiced on a regular basis. Therefore, I suggest these 5 simple ways for kids to work on their EF skills over the summer. 

Create a Task Chart

Come up with a list of tasks that you would like to see your child complete on either a daily or weekly basis. This will set your expectations for your child. It is important to let them know that summer should be relaxing, which is why you have planned activities and downtime on a daily basis. 

Summer is the perfect time for students who may have a lot going on in the school year to add a new task into their skill set. Something such as “make dinner on Tuesday nights” is an activity that requires planning, organizing, mental flexibility, sequencing , following directions and time management skills. 

Other tasks could include things such as: make your bed, load/unload the dishwasher, move your body for 30 minutes, study for the ISEE/SSAT, read for 30 minutes, or journal (I am a huge fan of these last two). 

My good friend, Nina, shared her children’s (ages 9 and 13) daily summer to-do lists with me, which include both specific and more vague items. “Eat breakfast by 8:30am and lunch by 12:30pm” is one that can help kids really think about their daily schedule while also learning that they need to take care of their bodies according to a routine, which is so often forgotten on long summer days. “Take initiative to do something helpful without being asked” requires a child to have a bit more thought to really look at their environment, read the situation, find an action that needs a solution, and figure out how to get that done, all without much direction. 

Complete A Project From Start to Finish

Have your child brainstorm something they would like to work on. The process of brainstorming, putting together a plan, creating a timeline and prioritizing tasks, making and gathering a list of materials/tools, and thinking about who and when to ask for help is an essential to helping children figure out how to achieve a goal they set for themselves, a crucial skill as children move forward in their educational careers. 

Last summer, my kids decided they wanted to create a lemonade stand with their cousins. I said, “great, tell me what you need”. They worked together to create the list of supplies they would need, how and where to advertise, how to price the items they wanted to sell, what types of payment made the most sense, how to interact with people in order to provide service and encourage sales, and the biggest challenge, deciding what to do with the money. (Ultimately, they felt that they would have more sales if they advertised that the money was going to charity. One child was strongly against this, but ultimately came around because he didn’t want to be left out). I was very hands off, other than washing out the lemonade dispensers at the end of the day. 

Other projects could be building a fort (either inside or outside), baking a new dessert, putting together a model, or trying a new science experiment. Your local library or bookstore will have countless books of project suggestions if they are struggling to think of a project of interest. 

Plan A Family Outing / Trip

While your summer may already be planned down to the second, see if you can find time to have your child plan an outing for your family, whether it be in town or on a day during an upcoming trip. 

Perhaps start the summer with a bucket list of places your child would like to go or if you already have a big trip planned, let your child choose the activities for one of the days. Whether planning a hike, a day at the beach, or a day out in Boston, encourage your child to think about what type of activity they would like to organize. Depending on your child’s age, they may need more or less guidance. Your child could interview other family members to find out preferences. Then, ask them to think about the best ways to gather information about the chosen activity and what things you might want to know before you go. What time does this place open? Is there parking? Should we take public transportation? Is there an entrance fee or other expenses involved? WHat should we plan for breakfast/lunch/dinner? What should we bring with us? 

Kids love to feel this level of control and will feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment after the execution. If things go awry, as they have a habit of doing, it’s a great time for you as parents to model flexible thinking and how to pivot from an original plan. Your child may even come to appreciate the work and planning that you do on a daily basis in addition to naturally building EF skills. 

Read & Write

If you have read any of my previous summer suggestions, you will know that reading and writing are my two best options to keep children’s minds from turning to mush in the summer. Following a summer reading list helps children to develop time management and planning skills. Reading outside of school is also one of the best predictors of educational success, and as I have mentioned in past posts, talking about reading will be a part of the school application process in some way or another. WHether the list comes from school, a library, or a local bookstore, encourage kids to find books of various genres to try. Most of these places have a way to track the books you have read and occasionally offer a reward at summer’s end. 

Writing is another skill that greatly promotes working memory and organization skills as well as a chance to practice self-reflection and self-regulation. One of the items my friend Nina has on her children’s chore list is “writing a card or letter to someone outside the immediate family” on a weekly basis. What a great way to keep kids writing while engaging and reflecting at the same time. Plus they get the added bonus of a return letter every now and then. 

Keeping a journal is another excellent way for children to take some quiet time on a daily basis to reflect on what they have been doing each day. I especially like for kids to journal at sleepaway camp or on a family vacation, because while being reflective, these entries can be a great souvenir from this time in life as well as establishing regular mindfulness. 

Participate In Activities Of Importance

This does not mean participating in activities that you think a school or college will want to see on your transcript. Rather, what has meaning to you? What activity can you be a part of where you can try something new, be productive, or help to make a difference? Think about camp choices, participating in a summer sports league, getting a summer job, or volunteering. 

These activities will help to develop time-management skills and set children up to face problem solving skills in a real world environment. Focus, patience, self-regulation, responsibility, and cognitive flexibility skills will be practiced. Additionally, volunteering can foster a real sense of empathy and meaning for your child. 

Whatever it is, have it be something you are passionate about or have an interest in trying. Your interest will allow you to enjoy whatever it is you choose to do, encourage you to dive more deeply into the activity, and be able to talk about the activity with passion to your teachers and during school interviews this fall. 

Depending upon the age of your child, you may need to offer more or less guidance. It is always tempting to jump in when we see our children struggle, but try to refrain from doing so too quickly. Instead ask questions that will encourage them to head in the right direction. Your student should be the one responsible for these tasks, which will ultimately take some of the burden off your shoulders. Giving your child the responsibility to handle some of these tasks will also give them the confidence to handle other challenges that come their way, because they will know how to function when things don’t go according to plan. Students will be using their brains all summer in ways that don’t necessarily feel academic but that will prepare and keep them sharp for the school year ahead. If this is just too challenging to implement in your own home, reach out for help. Executive Function coaches are available at every age level to help your child learn and sharpen these skills!

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