Executive Functioning and School: Tips to Help Your Child

Executive Functioning Blog

By Jennifer Tripoli

With back to school this week, both parents and kids may have mixed emotions. The school year can not only be stressful for the child attending, but also for parents of the children who “struggle” in school. Do any of the following characteristics describe your child?  If so, your child may have a deficit in executive functioning.

  • Completing homework is a daily struggle for my child
  • My child has difficulty initiating or beginning a task
  • My child is a procrastinator
  • My child is disorganized
  • My child has difficulty with time management
  • My child has difficulty multitasking
  • My child has a poor attention span or has difficulty shifting attention from task to task
  • My child is impulsive
  • My child is forgetful-often forgets to turn in homework, forgets required materials to complete homework, etc.
  • My child is very rigid
  • My child has difficulty solving a problem
  • My child has difficulty setting goals and following through
  • My child has difficulty following multistep directions or sequencing tasks
  • My child gets easily frustrated and often has a difficult time controlling his/her emotions

Executive Functioning: Has anyone heard these two words and thought what does that mean? It seems to be a hot topic right now in the world of pediatrics. I thought I would share a simple explanation and give you a few resources to explore in order to gain more knowledge about these two buzz words!

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “Executive function is the term we use to describe the mental processes that help connect past experience with present action. Activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space require that we use executive function skills”.

According to the Harvard University Center for the Developing Child, “Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive function, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities is critical to healthy development through middle childhood, adolescence, and into early adult life”.

To sum it all up, executive functioning include the following skills: attention, working memory, mental flexibility, time management, self-monitoring, planning/scheduling, organization, sequencing, emotional control, impulse control, task initiation, task persistence, and problem solving.

In order to conceptualize how important these skills are in our lives, let’s discuss an adult related example in order to better understand how we use these skills in our daily lives. Think about a typical day for you.

  • You plan out your day. Get up, get the kids out of bed, start breakfast, make lunches, go off to work, take the kids to after school activities, etc. (planning/scheduling/organizing)
  • You figure out what you need to get done and come up with a plan /goals for conquering your day (goal setting)
  • You get the kids up, start on breakfast and simultaneously pack lunches (multitasking)
  • On the way to work there is a major accident on the highway, so you must take an alternate route (mental flexibility)
  • You feel very agitated, but you are able to control your emotions and continue to work (emotional control/regulation)
  • When you arrive at work, you create a to do list for the day (scheduling/planning)
  • You decide how long each task will take and plan your day accordingly (time management)
  • You are able to initiate each task, persist through it in order to successfully complete it (task initiation/sustained attention/task persistence)
  • While you are typing a report, you get interrupted with a phone call. When the phone call is completed, you are able to remember where you left off with your report (working memory)
  • In the afternoon you attend a presentation that requires you to shift your attention between a PowerPoint presentation, the speaker, and a handout (attention shifting)
  • After work, you realize both of your daughters need to be at different after school activities at the same time, so you come up with a solution: call your husband to help with the driving (problem solving)
  • After dinner is cooked, you must set up table and chairs for your daughter’s birthday tomorrow so you follow multistep directions from the manual and appropriately sequence the steps for completion (sequencing)

See that? Look at all the executive functions YOU are using just to complete your daily tasks. Imagine having a deficit in one or many of these skills. Would you be able to get through your day successfully, efficiently, and without frustration? Probably not. Now let’s think about your child’s daily tasks. A large portion of a child’s day/life is school. Research has shown these skills are directly related to a child’s ability to excel in school. Here are a few school related tasks that require on point executive functioning skills:

  • Complete assignments in a timely manner (plan how long each assignment will take)
  • Plan out multistep projects
  • Prioritize weekly tasks/homework assignments (e.g. what needs to be completed tomorrow, by next week, etc.)
  • Initiate homework assignments
  • Complete homework assignments without distraction
  • Follow directions to complete a task
  • Keep school desk/backpack organized
  • Control emotions during difficult homework assignments or school tasks
  • Remember/retain important information
  • Self-monitor/self-check school work
  • Shift attention from teacher to note taking
  • Remember to turn in assignments
  • Ask for help when needed
  • Problem solve through difficult tasks (e.g. science project/experiment)

Are you beginning to see the importance of strong executive functioning skills for daily functioning? As the demands of the later grades increase and school becomes more difficult, children with executive functioning deficits may slip through the cracks and struggle tremendously. They often become frustrated and begin to resent school. So what can you do? Children with executive functioning deficits require strategies that help them compensate for their areas of weakness. Here are a few quick strategies/tips you can implement into your child’s daily life.

  • Have an area of the house or desk where homework is completed (should be kept clean, organized, and have all the materials needed to complete homework)
  • Help your child create an organization system for their backpack or school desk (e.g. take a trip to an organization store for ideas!)
  • Help your child keep a planner or schedule of tasks they must complete. Make it visible!
  • Implement the use of checklists (e.g. can practice by making a grocery list and having your child check off items as you pick them up)
  • Use a timer/clock to help your child understand time/how long tasks take to complete (improve time management skills)
  • Help your child set very specific goals and come up with ways to break them down or make them more achievable
  • Have your child use graphic organizers/webs or outlines to organize thoughts for projects
  • Help your child figure out fun ways to remember pieces of information (associations, acronyms, fun/silly sentences/songs, etc.)
  • Help your child figure out a way to implement a self-correcting checklist before they turn in assignments

Executive functioning is a large area that may be overwhelming for a parent. This blog by no means has even scratched the surface of this extremely important area of development. Hopefully I have shed some light on this subject and can help you make this school year less stressful for not only your child, but yourself as well!

Here is a list of resources/web links that talk more about what executive functioning is and offer advice on how to help your child!

http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/executive-function-disorders/executive-functioning-strategies-success-teaching-students/page-2

http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/executive-function-disorders/executive-functioning-organizing-prioritizing/page-2

http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2012-8-20-helping-kids-executive-functions-organization

http://patch.com/new-jersey/littlesilver/bp–smart-but-scattered-strategies-to-improve-executi885808bc5d

Want more ideas for executive functioning ideas for kids? Check out our Pinterest page!

http://www.pinterest.com/speechdeptes/executive-functioning/

Interested in having your child participate in a group that focuses on improving executive functioning skills? Check out our executive functioning group here at Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley!

http://dfvr.easterseals.com/page.aspx?pid=443

List of suggested games that target executive functioning skills:

https://cognitiveconnectionstherapy.com/Resources/Games.aspx 

Suggested reading for parents of children with executive functioning deficits

Smart but Scattered: http://www.amazon.com/Smart-but-Scattered-Revolutionary-Executive/dp/1593854455

Unstuck and On Target: http://www.amazon.com/Unstuck-Target-Executive-Curriculum-Flexibility/dp/1598572032

Executive Functioning skills in Children and Adolescents: http://www.amazon.com/Executive-Skills-Children-Adolescents Second/dp/1606235710/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1407254239&sr=1-1&keywords=executive+functioning+in+children+and+adolescents

The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Function Disorder: http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Children-Executive-Functioning-Disorder/dp/1440566852/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1407254276&sr=1-1&keywords=executive+functioning+in+children

Resources used for this blog:

http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/inbrief_series/inbrief_executive_function/

http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/executive-function-disorders

Jenn Tripoli

Jennifer Tripoli, M.S., CCC-SLP is a licensed and ASHA certified Speech Language Pathologist who enjoys working with the pediatric population. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Language Pathology from Marquette University in 2008 and her Masters of Science degree in Speech Language Pathology at Rush University Medical Center in 2010. Jenn has been working with the pediatric population at Easter Seals DuPage since 2010 where she has learned to work with children with a variety of different diagnoses. Areas of interest include: Childhood Apraxia of Speech, expressive language delays, language processing, articulation/phonological disorders, orofacial myofunctional disorders, sensory based feeding, Autism, and use of technology (ipad applications) within therapy sessions. Jenn’s continuing education experience include training in: Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Sequential Oral Sensory Approach (SOS), the Overland SensoriMotor approach to feeding, auditory processing, executive dysfunction, respiration, and use of Ipad Applications within therapy sessions. Jenn has her Early Intervention credential for treating children birth to 3 years of age and is a part of the Speech and Language Evaluation team at Easter Seals DuPage.

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