Executive functioning skills are those that help us get tasks done. When faced with a decision, problem, or task it is necessary to plan, organize, problem-solve, make decisions, and then initiate action. We must do each of these steps all the while focusing on multiple pieces of information, monitoring new information or errors, self-correcting direction if necessary, managing our frustrations, and resisting temptations to abandon the goal. This requires holding the overall goal in mind while also focusing on details. While this comes easy for some people, this is not easy for everyone, and it is most common to have strengths and weaknesses across these domains. Executive functioning abilities impact our children’s day-to-day lives, from academic settings to social situations.
STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING
Maintain Routine and Predictability
The more predictable and routine daily life is, the less overwhelmed your child will be. This means keeping a morning, after school, and evening routine, and having your child complete tasks in the same order daily. When you are adding a new task or expectation to your child’s routine, add it to an existing routine, rather than creating a new routine, to improve recall of this new obligation.
Keep a Weekly Schedule
Keep a weekly and monthly calendar in a prominent place in the home (e.g. on the fridge, by the front door). The schedule should include all school, sports, extra-curricular, and social events. Review the schedule with your child twice a day, once in the morning to be sure you are organized for the day, and once in the evening to be sure you are ready for the next day(s).
Use Very Detailed Lists
Generate very detailed lists for daily and academic tasks. Be sure to provide very specific details. For example, create a test taking list that includes the following: “write your name on the top of the page, read the first question completely before answering, and check test over for completion”. Add more specific items to the list if you see your child forgetting steps that you may have thought were obvious and did not initially include. Examples of helpful lists include: a morning routine, after school routine, and a bedtime routine, backpack checklist for before and after school, and test taking checklists. Consider laminating these checklists, and allowing your child to cross things off with a dry erase marker once a task is done.
Offer Opportunities to Plan and Organize
Use daily family life as an opportunity for your child to practice planning and organizing events that are of interest and relevance to them. Ask your child to plan a family meal, game night, or an outing. Have them generate a list of all the materials needed, a loose schedule or timeline to follow, and match this with a checklist.
Talk Out Loud When You Problem Solve
When your child is overwhelmed and stuck with a problem, talk out loud about how you might go about approaching the issue. Be sure to explain the big picture, as the big picture is sometimes not clear for children with executive functioning difficulties. Then, coach them step by step through their situation, letting them carry out the specific steps/ tasks themselves.
Be Patient and Educate Yourself
Once you understand what executive functioning skills are, and how they affect your child, it will be easier for you to approach crises with tolerance and patience. Getting mad or giving consequences will dampen your child’s spirit, and won’t change their behavior (they are not misbehaving, they have a specific weakness which requires your support; this does not come easily for them). Staying calm, being patient, and taking a problem-solving approach will help your child feel supported, and will provide them with opportunities to grow.
As with any new skill, it takes practice and repetition to learn. Don’t implement more than one of the above strategies at a time. Add new strategies once the initial strategy has been mastered. An executive functioning coach may be able to work with you to identify a strategic targeted approach to the necessary skills your child needs most.
For more information and executive functioning strategies check out internet resources (e.g. Understood.org), books for parents by Peg Dawson, or schedule a consultation with an Executive Functioning Skills Coach at New Leaf Psychology Centre (905-878-5050).