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Using executive functions to navigate the back to school transition.

This September brings an uncertain time for many children who struggle with executive functioning. Under normal circumstances, we would expect a level of underlying anxiety about facing a new school year, but given some of them have been out of the typical school routine for almost 6 months we know this will be more prevalent than ever. For parents, this too can be an overwhelming time of year as children with executive function challenges are often more reliant on their parents for the support and preparation in getting back to school1. By applying our recommended executive function strategies when preparing for the new school term, they will help your child and yourself navigate this major transition by making it smoother for everyone.  

What are executive functions?

Executive Functions are a set of mental skills that reference goal-directed behaviour and self-regulation2. Residing in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain), our executive function skills impact our ability to successfully plan (short and long‐term) as well as to manage the important aspects of daily life such as being organised, managing time and controlling our emotions. Research has even shown that executive function development is a better predictor of school readiness than entry-level maths, English and even IQ3

As a parent, how can I support my child’s transition back into school?

Stage 1: Reflection

Start by making a scrapbook of things that made summer fun and what other things are going to be important when returning back to school such as the morning routine or how to pack their bags efficiently. Be creative by adding photos and drawings to make this as engaging as possible for your child! Take the time to describe the differences between summer and school, and define what is ending and what is beginning. Engaging in reflective and future thinking exercises is a great way to build their metacognition and cognitive flexibility executive functions skills4

Stage 2: Talk about how they are feeling

Many children will be worried about returning to school due to the coronavirus pandemic. For many children the lockdown period and returning to school during the pandemic has been very challenging especially if they have dealt with bereavement or a difficult home environment. Create a safe space by talking to your child about how they are feeling about this. We recommend taking a walk or cooking together so that it creates a less pressured environment than if you had sat down with them face-to-face. Using empathy is so important here! If you would like some support on how you can use empathy at home using a three-step approach click here to take our online video course.

What should you do if they are worried?

If they do express worry, then start by regularly talking to your child about their school routine and what might be different so that it builds familiarity. To help them build resilience, model good coping strategies that they can use when they are feeling stressed (e.g. talking to friends, taking a break). Make yourself as available as possible so that they know that they have someone to talk to about their concerns, and if concerns do arise make sure you share this with their teacher. Importantly, be mindful that they may find it difficult to adjust back into the school routine in the first few weeks because of these concerns, and so may demonstrate some behavioural challenges. 

Stage 3: Preparation you can do now

As the school year is fast approaching, it is essential to start making preparations as early as you can. This includes taking the time to consider the school materials and supplies your child might need. We recommend looking for a planner that focuses on the calendar view of the month rather than just the week. Research has shown that that monthly planning can lead to substantial improvements in grades as it enables students to have a picture of the future beyond just a day or week, which is critical for setting goals for those longer-term projects5. This will also give them an understanding of the planning, preparation and organisation that goes into getting ready for a new year or life stage, a skill that they will need as they become more independent for university and job success6.

We know that children with executive function challenges can often find the thought of starting a new school year a bit daunting. Get them together with their friends and have them decide on the extra-curricular activities that spark their interest. Whilst participating in extra-curricular activities has been shown to improve academic achievement and building confidence7, this is also a great way to support their time-management, prioritisation and decision-making executive function skills8!

Stage 4: Preparation you can do the night before

Getting your child involved in the preparation the night before will help put them in the right mindset and set their expectations once they wake up the next morning. This includes tasks such as getting school uniform ready, packing a school bag, remembering homework and even making lunch. If you are a bit stumped for lunch ideas this year, visit our Pinterest board which is full of easy lunch ideas by clicking here. Preparing a meal is key to developing so many executive functions such as planning, organisation, time-management, task initiation, attentional control and goal-directed persistence9.

It is also worth creating a visual checklist for each of the tasks and have your children time how long each of these takes to complete to build their planning and time-management skills. You can turn this into a game, and introduce rewards if they manage to complete everything on the checklist.

Stage 5: Managing the first few weeks back

Be prepared to support your child through the various tasks that need completing. From here, you can begin to scaffold these tasks until they become independent. For those children who have known  executive function challenges, support your child with organising their backpack, school materials and study area. Get them into the routine of completing homework each evening and studying.

One essential exercise that we recommend is encouraging your child to set goals for the beginning of the school year. Check out our Back-to-school Think Sheet resource below to support their goal-directed persistence and task initiation executive function skills. If you would like more free resources like this, become a member of our online Executive Function Support Group for Parents to download the Think Sheet by clicking here.

How can Connections in Mind help?

Whether your child or teen is struggling with organisation, time-management or emotional control, we can support them as they transition back into school. Your child will get to work one-to-one with one of our amazing coaches to address their executive function challenges and develop new strategies so that they can flourish personally and academically. Watch our video for Executive Function Adventures (for younger children) or find out a bit more about our Coaching for independent Learning programme (12 years+).

Book a free 30 minute consultation call

If you would like some more information about our range of bespoke coaching programmes and to find out how we can help your child or teen more specifically, book a free consultation call with Sarah, one of our executive function coaching experts today. You can watch our client testimonials here.

Who are Connections in Mind?

At Connections in Mind, we are a team dedicated and caring executive function and ADHD coaching experts. Through our coaching programmes for young children and teenagers, our coaches combine their expertise and knowledge acquired through experience and education with strategies based on the latest empirical research to create bespoke coaching programmes tailored to individual client needs.

By Rebecca Tyler, Connections in Mind References


1Hughes, C., Ensor, R., Wilson, A., & Graham. A. (2008). Tracking executive function across the transition to school: A latent variable approach.Developmental Neuropsychology, 35 (1), 20-36.

2Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions.Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.

3Morrison, F. J., Ponitz, C. C., McClelland, M. M. (2010). Self-regulation and academic achievement in the transition to school. In Child Development at the Intersection of Emotion and Cognition, eds. S. D, Calkins, M, Bell (pp. 203-224). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

4Buttelmann, F., & Karbach, J. (2017). Development and plasticity of cognitive flexibility in early and middle childhood.Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1040.

5Kirschenbaum, D. S., Mallett, S. G., Humphrey, L. L., & Tomarken, A. J. (1982). Specificity of planning and the maintenance of self-control: 1 Year follow-up of a study improvement program. Behaviour Therapy, 13 (2), 232-240.

6Bailey, C. E. (2007). Cognitive accuracy and intelligent executive function in the brain and in business.Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 122-141.

7Fredricks, J. A. (2012). Extracurricular participation and academic outcomes: Testing the over-scheduling hypothesis.Journal of Youth Adolescence, 41, 295-306.

8Schroeder, V. M., & Kelley, M. L. (2009). Associations between family environment, parenting practices and executive functioning of children with and without ADHD. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18, 227-235.

9Doherty, T. A., Barker, L. A., Denniss, R., Jalil, A., & Beer, M. D. (2015). The cooking task: Making a feel of executive functions. Behavioural Neuroscience Journal, 11 (9). 1-10.

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