Has your child ever completed an assignment only to forget to turn it in? Or, maybe they forgot about the homework all together?
Meltdowns, frustration, forgetfulness, anxiety and procrastination can all be avoided with simple tips and tricks for building executive function.
What is Executive Function?
Think of executive functioning as the "conductor" in your brain. It helps kids and adults alike to manage large-scale tasks such as planning a vacation, writing a report, or simply getting ready in the morning. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for complex cognitive processing that involves planning, coordination, and many other areas requiring control. Researchers are still discovering the exact areas that executive function can affect. Here are some of the leading skills and processes affected by executive function disorder:
1. Inhibition - AKA, Impulsive behavior - Inhibition allows a person to stop their automatic thoughts, actions, or behaviors at the appropriate time. Weakness in executive functioning can cause a child to appear impulsive and "out of control."
2. Shift - Think of this as mental flexibility. How easily can this person adapt to a situation? Are they able to adapt to new situations and new cognitive demands? This can be especially important when switching between tasks - like mixed practice in math.
3. Emotional Control - Calming yourself down whether excited or upset requires emotional control. Someone with executive function disorder may struggle with using rational thought or applying reason to their feelings. Outbursts, meltdowns, and excitability are signs that someone my have difficulty with controlling their emotions.
4. Initiation - The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. Challenge with initiation can look like procrastination or be misinterpreted as laziness. In reality, someone with difficulty initiating tasks can become stressed when having to start something new such as starting homework, going to bed, or even brushing their teeth.
5. Working memory - This is one of the most important functions effected by ADHD and executive function disorder. It refers to the capacity of the mind to hold information for the purpose of completing a task. The mind has a limited amount of information it can hold in its working memory. As new items come in, old information gets pushed out. Challenges with working memory can lead to anxiety, distractability, and irritability.
6. Planning/Organization - Though seemingly simple, planning and organization refers to more than just tracking information. It also describes the process of organizing information in your head as well. For example, when given a long-term assignment such as writing a report, a person must break apart that assignment into smaller steps, consider outside factors such as football practice or dinner events, account for specific directions, and much more.
7. Organization of Materials - The ability to order and track items necessary for current and upcoming activities. This step is crucial when preparing to leave the house. When you create a mental checklist (purse, keys, jacket for the evening, water-bottle, lunchbox, etc), you are using your executive skills. Something as simple as packing can be strenuous for people who struggle with executive functioning.
8. Self-Monitoring - This refers to one's ability to monitor their own behavior and to measure it against a standard of what is expected. This can become increasingly difficult when distracted or overly excited.
How can I help my child?
Ever heard of an executive assistant? Maybe a secretary? Well, for the next few weeks, that's your new job! Don't worry. This job wont last forever. Your tasks is to show your child how to become their own executive assistant. You'll work along side your son or daughter using these great organization techniques until they can do it on their own. When someone has executive function disorder, they don't have the instinctive ability to plan and organize. Handing them tools wont help without demonstration. With the help of these tools, your child will become accustomed to planning and organizing their day without having to rely on you. Now that doesn't that sound nice? Here are some tips and tricks to get yo started.
1. Picture Calendar - AKA, Sketch calendar- Believe it or not, most people don't think in "words." Instead, we think in pictures. This is how our brain interprets, stores, and retrieves most information. Lets use that to our advantage and draw on our calendars, rather than write. This technique is especially valuable for younger children. Print a blank monthly calendar (or use a whiteboard) and hang it somewhere visible. Together, add important dates and events. For example, if your daughter has dance every Monday, she should draw a dancer on each Monday. You can spice it up by printing pictures instead of drawing.
2. Bullet Journal - Adults and children with executive functioning disorder can become overwhelmed and stressed with the amount of information they must hold in their working memory. Bullet journals are a flexible way to track information and free up your working memory. Check out this helpful guide to building your own.
3. Behavior Tracking - Tracking your own behavior or actions can help with emotional control as well as self-monitoring. Here is a behavior chart I like to use when working with a student. The key is to use positive language and focus on their successes. You can also check in at the end of the day with your own child. Ask them to evaluate their behavior. Be sure to ask specific questions like "what did you do that was good today? Did you do anything that stopped you from learning?"
4. Use Timers - Visually clear timers (such as a sand-glass) can do wonders for task initiation. With executive function disorder, starting a new task can appear daunting. No matter how simple the assignment, it can seem as though it will last forever. Choosing to work off timers, rather than task completion, will reduce the anxiety and intimidation when initiating a task. For best results, start with 5 minute timers then work your way up to 10, 15, and ultimately 25.
5. Reward System - Reward systems can heavily influence a person's motivation as well as self-esteem. Abstract rewards such as "good job" and vague goals such as "if you do good this week, we can do something fun later" can be confusing for someone with executive function disorder. They are intangible and therefore unsuccessful in boosting motivation. Next time, try creating a tangible system with clear, outlined goals. "If you finish your homework in 30 minutes, you can have an extra 15 minutes of screen time." Be sure to verbally outline the goals and of course, always followo through when they successfully complete their goal.
6. Movement Breaks - This is one of the most underrated tactics to improve overall focus, energy, motivation, and quality of work. Movement breaks help for several reasons. 1. They allow us to refocus and recenter our thoughts. 2. They break apart tasks helping them to become more manageable. 3. They work as a reward system to increase motivation. 4. They release tension while boosting energy. 5. Crossing the midline will help with learning and retention. To effectively use breaks, ensure that you or the student takes a break at minimum every 25 minutes. Breaks should require movement and little thought (video games and doodling are not effective breaks). Here are some tools you can use to provide effective movement breaks.
7. Designated Work Space/Time - Never underestimate the power of consistency. By providing a clean, clear, and designation workspace, we can trick our minds into focusing. Have you heard of the power of association? Basically, if we continue to work in the same space at the same time each day, our mind will adapt to that behavior. It will begin to anticipate work flow and adjust it's focus accordingly. Try arranging a desk or office space used only for work. You'll notice an increase in focus and attention almost immediately.
If you have any tips and tricks of your own, please share! We would love you hear from you.