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3 Mindset Shifts for Parents and Educators That Will Empower Children's Executive Function Skills

Research shows that children with less self-control at ages 3 to 11, have worse outcomes related to health, wealth, and criminal records, 30 years later.

Note, this research stands the test EVEN when controlling for IQ, gender, social class, and more.

On the brighter side, research shows that when students ARE taught self-regulation skills the impact cannot be understated:

"...interventions that achieve even small improvements in self-control for individuals could shift the entire distribution of outcomes in a beneficial direction and yield large improvements in health, wealth, and crime rate for a nation”

In this article, I will teach teach you three essential mindset shifts you can make starting today that will ensure improvements in your child's executive function skills.

Let's dive in.

What are executive function skills?

Executive function skills are the components that make up the brain's operating system. They include things like:

  • Planning

  • Organization

  • Self-awareness

  • Inhibition

  • Time management

  • Initiation

  • Visualizing outcomes

  • Evaluating priorities

Pretty POSITIVE things, right? See what I did there?

Guiding children to develop strong executive function skills predicts academic success and improved quality of life.

Just check out the research of Dr. Adele Diamond:

But if they are so important, why do parents and educators struggle to teach them?

Why do parents and educators struggle to support executive function skills?

Parents and educators often struggle to teach executive function skills effectively. Many parents are unaware of what is developmentally appropriate for their children or incorrectly assume that these skills will develop naturally within the school system without their support.

Why parents struggle to support executive function skills

This can lead to fears of challenging their children appropriately, resulting in statements like:

  • “I don’t want my child to be mad.”

  • “They are only (insert age). They shouldn’t have to (write their name on their backpack/carry their backpack, etc.).”

  • “Won’t making them (developmentally appropriate task) make them sad?”

Why educators struggle to support executive function skills

Teachers face their own set of challenges:

  • "I haven't received enough training or resources on how to teach executive function skills effectively."

  • "There's just not enough time in the day to fit in executive function skill development along with all the required academic content."

  • "My students have such diverse needs; it's challenging to address each one’s executive function skills individually."

If you are a parent or educator with little time and energy, this guide will explain how you can overcome these challenges and support children in developing strong EF skills by making three subtle, but powerful mindset shifts.

Here's how step by step:

Mindset Tweak 1: Embrace Incremental Challenges 🪜

As a parent or educator, research shows that your ability to introduce tasks that are slightly above the child's current capability, while providing appropriate support, fosters a sense of accomplishment and growth.

The scientific language for this approach according to the research of John Hattie is called your "estimates of achievement" and it should be your goal to challenge your student to try something in their "zone of proximal development."

Image of What is the Zone of Proximal Development
What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Start with simple tasks like putting their name on their paper, then move to organizing their backpack.

These incremental challenges help build their executive function skills without overwhelming them.

Here are some examples of developmentally appropriate challenges for K-2 students:

- Putting Their Name on Papers

- Packing Their Backpack

- Setting the Table

- Dressing Themselves

- Tidying Up Toys

- Following a Morning Routine

- Completing Simple Chores

- Organizing School Materials

- Managing a Visual Schedule

For a full list of developmentally appropriate tasks by age, check out these resources:

If you want to take action, pick one of the challenges above and focus on it for the next week or two.

You might be amazed to see how capable your little one is when you provide guidance and direction without doing it for them.

Mindset Shift 2: View Resistance as an Opportunity for Growth 📈

Next time you hear your kid say something like:

  • "I CAN'T do this."

  • "It's too hard!"

  • "Please, do it for me."

Take a moment to consider these questions:

Would my child feel more confident if they learned how to (insert developmentally appropriate task)?

Is there a way for me to offer support, without doing this task for them?

If I am not going to teach this skill now, when do I plan on requiring them to do it?

Resistance and frustration are natural parts of learning new skills. These reactions often signify an extinction burst, where a child's initial resistance intensifies before new behaviors are established.

What is an extinction burst?

For example, if you ask your child to pack their own backpack, they might initially resist, throw a tantrum, or forget items deliberately to push back.

If you continue to hold the expectation, your child's tantrum may evolve in a full-blown meltdown.

At this moment, you have a choice:

The Right Choice

You continue to hold your expectation and the emotional outburst will eventually subside.

The Wrong Choice

You "give-in" and now your child knows that by throwing a tantrum or meltdown, they can get their way.

At some point, you need to hold a boundary, whether it is now or when they are in high school.

Making it through the extinction burst is crucial because it leads to the development of new skills and sets new expectations.

extinction burst when teaching self-regulation skills
Example of the extinction burst

As your child begins to realize that the task is non-negotiable and that they can do it, they start to internalize the routine and develop a sense of responsibility.

This helps them learn to manage their emotions and persist through challenges, ultimately fostering independence and confidence.

This leads to better outcomes in terms of their health, wealth, and overall quality of life.

Nice work Mom and Dad! 🫸 🫷🏽

Mindset Shift 3: Boundaries Are A Form of Love ❤️

Boundaries are one of the purest forms of love a parent or educator can provide.

Setting boundaries does many things for children including:

  • Teaching the child to respect the rights and needs of others.

  • Building empathy by understand what is acceptable and not acceptable in a relationship

What happens when parents and educators don't set boundaries with children?

When children do not have clear boundaries, you may inadveretnly teach them that that actions do not consequences.

While this may have less consequences in the home, it sets the stage for a rude awakening when they enter school, society, or the work force later on.

Examples of boundaries parents can set with children
Examples of boundaries parents can set with children

Remember, if they don't learn boundaries from you, then they will eventually learn them from a teacher, administrator, police officer, judge, or someone else whose boundary they cross.

True love means guiding your child toward becoming a responsible and respectful individual, even when it requires tough decisions and consistency.


Want to take action? Try these steps this week:

  1. Choose an appropriate task (e.g., packing a backpack), break it into steps, and guide without doing it for them.

  2. When frustrated, ask guiding questions like, "How can we make this easier?" Stay patient and supportive.

  3. Clearly state expectations and maintain boundaries even if they resist. Praise their efforts to reinforce positive behavior.

  4. Discuss accomplishments and challenges at the end of the week, celebrating successes and planning next steps.

These small actions and mindset shifts will help children develop the confidence and resilience needed to navigate future academic and personal challenges and make the world a better, healthier, safer place for all.

If you found this helpful, consider checking out my speaking page so we can share this message with your parent community or school team. To learn more, visit my speaking page.

About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 

With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.

He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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