Executive Function Strategies for Children

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The Challenge of Executive Dysfunction

Do your children (or you) struggle with starting tasks? Or completing them? Do they (or you) have trouble recalling information? Following multi-step directions or staying on track? Planning or organizing?

These are all tasks that rely on the Executive Functions (EF) of the brain – and they have an enormous influence in our day to day lives. Faulty EF skills can create several challenges for children (and adults), both at home and school (or work).

“Executive Function” is a term used to describe a set of mental processes that helps the brain organize and act on information, like prioritizing, paying attention and getting started on tasks. EF also helps people use information and experiences from the past to solve current problems and avoid repeated errors and mistakes.

Executive Function skills are not automatic – they develop with maturation. Children with EF challenges often experience a 2-3 year developmental delay – maturing into these skills later than others their age. As a result, comparing children with Executive Function challenges to their peers or siblings can cause problems for their self-esteem. Parents are encouraged to develop separate and realistic standards and expectations for children who struggle with EF challenges.

The child with Executive Function challenges may demonstrate the following:

  • Poor organizational skills
  • Gets out of control easily
  • Struggles with large assignments/projects
  • Trouble with routines – too rigid or to loose
  • Procrastinates and/or late on assignments
  • Poor sense of time; underestimates time
  • Easily overwhelmed; easily distracted
  • Low self esteem; stress & anxiety
  • Smart but scattered

While good Executive Function skills are not a guarantee of school success, their absence is a predictor of difficulty at some point — including a potential loss of self-esteem.

Helping your Child Succeed

Here’s the good news. With parental support and effective strategies, your child can learn to develop and improve Executive Function skills and succeed in school and life. And the earlier you start to focus on these skills, the better.

While there are many EF skills for you to focus on, here’s a great place for you to start:

  • planning
  • time management
  • routines and structures

Teaching Planning Skills

Teaching your child to plan can be challenging, but the results will pay off! To get started:

  • Take a step-by-step approach to homework, home chores and tasks.
  • Help your child learn to break down a task into smaller steps. Have fun and make it a game.
  • Use visual organizational aids, such as lists, charts, white boards or bulletin boards to allow your child to ‘see’ the steps necessary to complete chores.

Managing Time

Many people with EF struggle with time management. They have no sense of the real difference between now and later. “Just a minute” could be an hour or more. Guessing how long something will take is a particular challenge.

  • Use tools like time organizers, kitchen timers, computers or watches with alarms.
  • If a task is to be completed in 30 minutes, set the timer for 20 minutes. When the alarm sounds, the child will know that there is ten minutes remaining to complete the task.
  • Use a timer to help your child learn how to gauge the ‘passing of time.’
  • Make “guesstimating” time accurately a family game.

Routine & Structure

Adults and children with Executive Function challenges often have a tendency to dislike structure and routine. You might hear, “It’s boring to do it the same way every time;” or “I won’t remember to do it the same way every time.” An adult client once told me that “structure feels like a straight-jacket.”

But much like banks to a river, structure can also help to ‘guide and direct’ the Executive Function challenged individual’s attention, focus and energy.

  • A step-by-step bedtime routine will help your child to get to bed on time and prevent distractions and conflicts.
  • A specific routine may help your child to get up in the morning, get dressed, eat, and leave for school on time without anyone getting upset.

Some parents may find it inconceivable that their children can’t simply figure out routines for themselves, but that is nature of the challenge for many children with Executive Function deficits.

Final Take-Aways

Executive Function deficits are real, and they can create complicated day-to-day challenges for children and adults. To manage this:

  • Set achievable and realistic expectations for your child, based on his/her EF skill level. Set your child up to WIN.
  • Practice being ‘firm but gentle’ with your child in regard to expectations.
  • Recognize when your child’s emotional upsets are actually triggered by unsuccessful feelings caused by EF deficits.

Executive Function skills can be learned with proper strategies, patience and parental support.

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