Online learning

When executive functions are put to the test

(Adapted from Andrew Luceno’s article)

With online learning currently being the mode of programme delivery in many parts of the world, many caregivers are struggling to assist their child get their work done. In some cases, caregivers are forced to leave their child at home unsupervised.

Do you find that your child:

  • struggles to prioritize, structure, and get work done in the correct order (i.e. planning)?
  • takes a long time to get started (i.e. task initiation)?
  • has difficulty focusing on the screen in front of them when there are so many distractions around them (i.e. attention)?

When executive functions are put to the test

Planning, task initiation and attention are processes called executive functions. They are being put to the test during this unique online learning situation in which we find ourselves.

Children are not born with executive functioning skills – they are born with the potential to develop them.

focused multiracial girls painting eggs at table
Photo by Eren Li on


Many children struggle to focus without any obvious distractions, and the home environment may create additional challenges.

Children may have access to devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.), the television, snacks from the pantry, siblings, toys, and their bed!

From the child’s perspective, there are many interesting things to do besides schoolwork, so caregivers need to work extra hard to structure a suitable whole-day learning environment at home.

Distance learning is somewhat new territory for most of us, which means we might need to support our children in unique ways.

What can caregivers do?

  • Structure your child’s day so that it is similar to a typical day. Follow a regular timetable, sleep at the same time, wake up as usual. Get dressed, wash. Inconsistency affects a child’s ability to focus and manage their emotions.
  • Create a distraction-free environment. Remove unnecessary devices and block certain websites.
  • Organise a well-lit place to work where you can check in on them from time to time. Supervised children are more likely to stay on task. If possible, create a working space away from the bedroom (i.e. kitchen table).
  • Have sound-dampening headphones or earplugs available to block out distracting noises around the house – especially when the whole family is isolating.
anonymous ethnic tutor helping little multiracial students with task in classroom
Photo by Katerina Holmes on

Task Initiation

For most children, task initiation is the biggest stumbling block to task completion. In an online learning environment, not having an adult to help with this step could mean not starting at all.

The next time your child gets stuck on getting started, ask them the following:

  • Do you know how to get started (e.g. what comes first)?
  • Do you have what you need to be successful (e.g. materials/resources, assignment details)?
  • Can you handle this task (have you learned what’s necessary to do this)?
  • Are you worried that you will fail?

Reinforce prompt initiation – support your child through the start of the process.

Break down large tasks into parts (chunking).

Set up motivators that encourage your child to complete tasks.

Reduce distractions.

Encourage your child to plan when and how to do the task.

Allow your child to reflect on the consequences of complete and incomplete tasks.

photo of planner and writing materials
Photo by Bich Tran on


Planning and prioritizing are inseparable. Help your child determine what comes first, and how to get it done. This could make all the difference between smooth sailing and frustration/stress.

Encourage your child to have a visual planning system (e.g. large whiteboard or calendar, post-it notes to sequence the planning steps). A visual system will assist with goal and reward setting, and will create balance throughout the school week.

Chunk tasks – break them down into smaller, more manageable parts. Chunking helps children to:

  • Set goals
  • Anticipate setbacks
  • Estimate the time an assignment will take
  • Reduce some stress

Research supports chunking as a motivator because as children complete small steps, their brains reward them with dopamine (dopamine is the brain’s happy chemical).

Teaching these skills at Japari School and at home – working together!

Children need to be taught executive functioning skills. The area of the brain primarily responsible for executive functioning (prefrontal cortex) is not fully developed until around the age of 25 years.

As a school, we can help children by looking for ways to teach executive functioning skills within the classroom and now at home – whether it is through a school assignment or a household chore.

By helping our children to practice removing distractions, initiating tasks, and planning when the stakes are low, they can afford to make mistakes. In this way, we adopt a full “growth mindset”.


Keeping It All Together During Online Learning – Helping Kids with their Executive Functioning

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