Tips for Helping Kids with Executive Functioning Challenges

  • Dyslexia News
Amy Dempster

“When students use strategies that address the core executive function processes, they also become independent learners and flexible thinkers, and can more easily bypass weaknesses by using their strengths to learn more efficiently.” ~Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D.

We recently hosted an executive function panel for Carroll parents. We think a lot about executive function strategies and how to approach each student’s unique capacity in this area, whether it’s amplifying strengths or remediating weaknesses. At school. What we realized at this workshop was how many parents are also craving strategies and tools they can use to support their children at home.

In the first of an Executive Function blog series, we tackle some basic information and a few approaches parents can use at home.

What Is Executive Functioning?

Researchers characterize executive function as a specific set of attention-regulation skills involved in conscious goal-directed problem solving skills. That’s a mouthful! Basically, executive function is one’s ability to pay attention, organize and plan, initiate tasks and stay focused on them, regulate emotions, and self-monitoring.

Three key areas of EF include:

  • Cognitive Flexibility: considering perspectives and solving problems in multiple ways
  • Working Memory: keeping information in mind and manipulating it (i.e. reading comprehension)
  • Inhibitory Control: managing attention and engagement, ignoring distractions, stopping an impulse

Executive Function Challenges

In the chart below, you’ll find the most common executive function challenges that we see with our students. As with dyslexia, kids can struggle with one area of EF or multiple, and at varying degrees.

Executive Function Challenges

Helping Children with Executive Functioning Challenges

Children with executive functioning challenges need to have these skills directly taught and practiced over and over again in the same way they need to have academic skills directly taught and practiced. And though this looks a little different across campuses and/or grades, the underlying approach is the same -- explicit, direct instruction that meets the needs of the individual child.

Strategy: STOP and Read the Room

Executive Function - Space, Time, Objects, People

The STOP strategy is a great way to help children be mindful of what is happening around them. Once kids are aware, they are better able to respond and take action.

  • S is for Space: Ask your child to stop and read the room. What is going on? How is the space set-up? A visualization exercise helps when approaching a new activity or tasks (what will it look like when …)
  • T is for Time: Get on a timeline with your child. What is happening at this moment in time? Is this part of the child’s routine or outside the norm? Preview what is coming up and the expected pace. Have kids predict how long an activity, such as homework, will take. Make time visible on a wall clock or countdown clock. Can I dilly-dally or rush through this activity? What happens if I do? Lead kids through a mental dress rehearsal.
  • O is for Objects: How are things organized? Where are objects located and for what purpose? Setting up your child’s home space in a predictable, easily understood way helps them to know where is the homework space, where is the play space, where is the eating place, etc. For an activity or assignment, ask children what materials they need to gather? What are the steps to getting it done? Look at the end product and work backwards to the plan. Using visual checklists and task planning worksheets help, such as “Get Ready, Do, Done.”
Executive Function - Get Ready, Do, Done Chart
  • P is for People: Read the people around you, especially in new situations. Have kids look at faces, bodies, appearances, moods, etc. Ask kids: What are people are saying or doing? What role does this person play (i.e. a coach vs. a teammate)?

Strategy: MIME iT

The MIME iT strategy is about picturing something in your head before doing it. The goal is to get kids to become future thinkers, experiencing the self in time and talking through the experience so they are efficient and successful at a task.

  • M is for Make an Image: What will the end product or end task look like?
  • I is for I: What will I look like? Self projection into the future
  • M is for Mental Time Travel: How am I Moving to achieve this?
  • E is for Emotion: How will I feel doing this?
Executive Function MIME

Strategy: “Outside School” Time Management (NAAG & WAAG)

Kids are busy. When they have executive function challenges, it can be even harder on them (and their parents) to manage “outside school” time … homework, sports & activities, family time, oh my!

One way to help kids organize time is to have them create a Night at a Glance or Weekend at a Glance schedule.

Executive Function - Night at a Glance Chart

By writing down their schedule, kids can visualize what they will be doing and when. It’ll also help them to plan for much-needed down time, time with friends, or family time. It can also help them to identify “time robbers” - things getting in the way of accomplishing tasks. Using the chart below can help kids figure out what the time robber stole and make a plan for how to avoid it next time.

Executive Function Time Robbers

Like anything new, we encourage parents to concentrate on one thing at a time.. It’s best to identify one area that needs support (i.e. getting ready in the morning) and trying some of these tools towards improving that task … and don’t forget to encourage the effort made along the way!

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