Executive Functioning Skills: CO-OP Model Expanded

By: Laura Van Zandt, OTR/L

Recently I wrote a blog on how to develop and strengthen executive function skills using the CO-OP (GoalPlanDoCheck) model. I thought I’d take a moment and expand on a very important foundational skill.

“Do with me and not for me”

So often we have great intentions and we do for our children. This isn’t a bad thing; we want our children to succeed. It’s hard to see them struggling. When we do for our children we neglect one very important step in developing their executive function skills. We accidentally take away their ability to plan, prioritize, problem solve, manage their space/time/materials, and reflect.

If we do not expect our children to be an “active participant” in his or her life, then we take away the many opportunities to learn the daily life skills needed for adulthood and the ability for learning how to tackle and master challenges. Involving your child in daily activities and encouraging them to be an active participant builds a strong sense of competency and positive self-esteem. It helps provide the confidence that your child can do many things and learn to ask for assistance when things go wrong.

Getting your child involved doesn’t have to be an elaborate process. Take whatever you are currently doing for your child and give him/her a simple job with the task. If the child is used to doing “nothing” start very small. Any job, regardless of how small (e.g. hold the pillow and place it on the bed while you make the bed, put one or two dishes into the dishwasher, drop a few articles of clothes in the washer, raise his arms to put his shirt on, etc.) is a start.

The best therapeutic opportunities are often right in front of you. There are endless activities (e.g. cooking, laundry, shopping, bathing, etc.) that make up your day.  You can use all your little interactions for many opportunities to develop executive function skills. By taking a little more time, you can  get your child involved around the house. Instead of just doing, slow down and ask for help. You might find your child enjoys helping and you may even start making some new memories together!

Basi Family

By doing with your child, you have the opportunity to break down the task so your child can be successful. In the process your child then starts to learn that a goal (e.g. making a bed) has many steps to the plan (e.g. put on the fitted sheet, do opposite corners, put on the sheet, put on the duvet/comforter, hold open the pillow case and put in the pillow, place the pillows on the bed). When we do the goal sometimes we work with a team (e.g. you and your child) and sometimes we need to adjust our plan (e.g. having them help this time) and sometimes we check throughout the process (e.g. did we get all the pillows?). You should celebrate with your child by “doing it together” with praise, giving high fives, and other gestures of companionship that you and your child share together. In turn, your child feels productive and competent; driving a desire to learn more. Over time your child learns to feel “good” about doing, and the typical daily challenges that are now a major struggle start to melt away. The child becomes more eager to learn, rather than driven to avoid.

I briefly used GoalPlanDoCheck but let’s use the concept in two better examples. Let’s use the first example for getting your children ready for school and let’s use the second example to model tools you use to help yourself get ready. Both ways involve your children.

1) Helping Your Child Get Ready in the Morning

Goal– While first getting your child up in the morning, tell them “It’s time to get ready so our goal is for you to be at school on time.” Use the word goal so your child knows that is GettingReadyforSchoolyour expectation.

Plan– Talk to your child about the steps. “First we need to go the bathroom so we can wash your face and brush your teeth. This usually helps wake you up so you can focus on getting dressed all by yourself. When you are getting dressed all by yourself, mom and dad will be downstairs making your breakfast. You need to eat your breakfast and then grab your lunch so we can get you to school. Don’t forget to double check your backpack and make sure you have everything you need for school or any after school activities.”

Depending on your child and the age of your child, you might simplify the plan. You might use visuals to help your child remember the plan. There are tons of different strategies that can worked within each child’s individual plan that are tailored to his or her specific needs and specific interests to ensure motivation. Depending on your child you might also need to use incentives to help with motivation and time management.

Do– Divide and conquer. Depending on your child’s age, he or she would not be expected to do all the pieces of the plan.

Check– Keep talking to your child. “Did we get everything? Are we on time? What helped us stay on time? What were time robbers?”

2) Modeling Tools You Use to Get Ready in the Morning

Children learn through modeling. This is a great way to begin introducing your child to this concept as well as teach through modeling different strategies.

Goal– While first getting up in the morning and working with your child, talk aloud to them. Talking aloud is not something that comes naturally and must be practiced; however, talking aloud is a great strategy for modeling the development of executive function skills. Tell them “It’s time to get ready so our goal is for you to be at school on time.” Use the word goal so your child knows that is your expectation.

Plan– Talk to your child about the steps; however, instead of listing the steps like we did in the first example, we are going to focus on you and tools that you use. This is important for kids who just seem disorganized, can’t get their arousal level just right, and just need help. Modeling is great to let them know we all use a variety of tools and that tools can be helpful. Here is an example of a conversation you might have while getting ready with your child:

“It’s time to get ready so our goal is for you to be at school on time. I don’t know about you, but mom is feeling really tired today. I have to get up earlier than you so that I can help you get ready. Do you know what helps me wake up so I can focus on getting ready? I start my morning with a shower. Sometimes the feel of the water on my skin wakes me up. Let’s try washing your face since we don’t have time for a shower.”

Notice how in this example, you discussed with your child a tool you use (shower) and provided them with an option to try. This is a great way to model. There are lots of other dialogues you can have with your child to model tools. This was just one example.

Do– Looks the same as in the first example; however, depending on the tool you may or may not be modeling. Do in the example above was telling your child and then providing your child with an example to do together.

Check– Remains the same. In this stage, we are actively involving our child to think and problem solve.

Have fun with it and know that you are working on developing and strengthening your child’s executive function skills. Executive function skills are developmental and must be taught. When working with your child, you are setting a path toward greater independence. Start simple and build gradually.

If your child is not used to doing much, start with a couple of activities a day. Pick a time of the day when you are not feeling rushed and your child is not feeling stressed. This will give you practice in how to guide, assist, and engage your child. Once it starts to feel natural, expand the “we-dos” into many daily activities. Do them together, giving him/her a little part to play, and gradually expanding his/her role to build more competence.

You are an important part in the development of your child. The more you can help your child think about what they do and why, the more they will be able to use that thinking in any problem solving situation. As my other blog concluded, the overall goal is to teach your child how to work through a problem using a planned approach instead of acting impulsively.

To learn more about Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley’s occupational therapy services visit: http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html. 

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