Original article appeared in the White Plains Examiner and Putnam Examiner January 31st, 2012. Updated content: August 2021.
Does your child have good ideas but struggle to get them down on paper? Do you frequently return to your child’s school to retrieve forgotten homework assignments? Have you ever been alarmed to discover your child has an untouched long-term assignment due tomorrow? Problems such as these are common among children who have challenges with executive functioning.
What Is Executive Functioning (EF)/ Executive Functions?
Executive functions organize and control our cognitive abilities. They enable us to plan, organize, prioritize, self-regulate, initiate activities, think flexibly, and choose appropriate behaviors. In school, executive functioning problems may result in lateness, difficulty transitioning, impulsiveness, struggles with traditional testing formats, difficulty remembering and completing assignments, and generalized trouble with planning. At home, they may result in difficulty with morning or nightly routines and with following general directions, such as cleaning a room when asked. Weekends can also be challenging due to decreased structure.
Who can have difficulty with executive functioning?
Problems with executive function are common among autistics, individuals with ADHD, and those with learning differences. However, some children have executive functioning issues without a diagnosis. These children are typically harder to identify and are often mislabeled as lazy, unmotivated, or even oppositional by parents and teachers. They may be told they are “just not paying attention.” But it’s not that simple. They have neurological differences that should be recognized and understood to create appropriate interventions and strategies.
Why is executive functioning especially challenging during the pandemic?
Most children experienced some form of remote learning in the 2020-21 school year, and while it was difficult for many, it was especially hard for those who have issues with executive functioning. Children found it taxing to sit in front of their cameras for long periods of time, to ignore distractions at home, and to keep their attention on their school tasks in the home environment. Accepting that your bedroom has become your classroom, gym, art, and music class (to name a few) just wasn’t that easy! Without the in-person support of teachers and aides to help keep them focused, many children did not have the necessary skills to manage their time and assignments on their own throughout the day. Unfortunately, many children will have to return to remote learning for portions of the 2021-22 school year if there is a COVID outbreak in their class or school.
How can issues with executive functioning be addressed?
The development of self-awareness is an overarching goal. We want children to learn how they learn – to understand which strategies are successful for them individually. Parents and teachers should collaborate to identify a child’s challenge areas to develop plans. Routines can be established for everything from getting ready in the morning to completing assignments. For instance, if a child has difficulty selecting and organizing materials, teachers can check with a student at the end of each day to make sure they have the necessary tools to work from home. Checklists taped inside a child’s locker can also be a useful memory aide. To work on time management, you can ask your child to estimate how long they believe an activity will take and then record the actual time. Children (and adults) are often surprised by how much they miscalculate time. Exercises like this foster self-awareness. In addition, all directions should be specific rather than general. Instead of asking a child to clean their room, parents can list tasks, for example: make your bed, pick up clothes, and put them in the hamper.
Writing assignments are particularly taxing on executive functions and are therefore quite challenging for individuals. Writing requires organizing thoughts, holding information in your mind while typing, flexible thinking, and constant revising. In order to complete a research project, a person must scour books and the internet, sift through large amounts of information, choose appropriate material, and then read, take notes, outline, and compose. Challenges with executive functioning can make these kinds of projects a nightmare. Therefore, having strategies to tackle them is crucial for success. Papers and projects should be broken down into smaller parts/pieces, and expected completion dates should be clearly documented on a calendar.
Executive functioning issues can range from minor to more significant. Regardless of the severity, there are many strategies – some of which are noted above – that parents and teachers can try to implement and monitor. Include your child in the development and monitoring of progress so they learn to be more self-aware and to revise strategies along the way. Many of these strategies can be implemented with some modifications if remote learning occurs again, even temporarily, this school year. It takes some creativity and definitely patience (with yourself and your child), but it is still possible to help your child get the most out of their school year, as frustrating as periods of remote learning might be for all of us. If executive functioning problems persist, a neuropsychological evaluation might be warranted in order to understand your child’s unique profile of functioning and to devise effective interventions.
Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing via telehealth. Jaime works with individuals on the autism spectrum from adolescence through adulthood. Visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/jaime-fleckner-black-new-york-ny/142509, www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com