You know your child is smart. That’s why it’s so frustrating when they keep forgetting assignments for school or missing important directions given in class. What’s getting in the way of your child’s smarts and their ability to get things done?
Executive functions are the mental processes responsible for our ability to focus our attention, plan ahead, remember directions, initiate a task, and evaluate the effectiveness of our work on that task. If your child is struggling with executive functions, it can be stressful for both of you – impacting how well they do in school, how much enjoyment they derive from learning, and how you can support them at home.
In this post, we’ll provide information on the challenges a child with an executive function disorder can face, what you as a parent can do to help, and how to support your child in overcoming their challenges and thriving in the classroom and out.
What is Executive Function Disorder?
An Executive Function Disorder (EFD) refers to impairment of a child’s executive function skills, which affects their ability to manage and organize themselves to achieve goals. LD Online provides the following list of executive functions:
- Inhibition – The ability to regulate one’s behavior; the opposite of impulsivity.
- Shift – The ability to transition easily from one situation to another and respond appropriately from one to the next.
- Emotional Control – The ability to self-regulate emotions.
- Initiation – The ability to independently begin an activity.
- Working Memory – The ability to keep information in mind long enough to complete an activity requiring that information.
- Planning/Organization – The ability to think ahead and consider current and future demands of a task or project.
- Organization of Materials – The ability to establish order with regard to schoolwork, possessions, etc.
- Self-Monitoring – The ability to reflect on one’s own behavior/work/etc. and measure it against the necessary or expected standard.
It is important to understand that EFD is not recognized as a specific mental health disorder, but rather is a variety of symptoms caused by other mental health issues, behavioral disorders, and neurological issues. For example, depression can affect certain executive functions such as memory capacity, attention span, and self-control. ADHD is another condition that can severely impair executive functions, especially with respect to emotional control, self-monitoring, and concentration.
Understanding the specific areas of executive function that impact an individual gives clarity in identifying strategies to make improvements in school and daily life performance.
Strategies for Dealing with Executive Function Disorder
There are many different ways with which to treat EFD issues. Most of the well-known treatments focus on promoting discipline and encouraging the child to initiate the change in themselves. We’ll focus on four of the most common treatment areas:
Metacognition can be thought of as “self-talk” or “thinking about thinking.” It is a self-regulated process in which a child gains understanding of their own learning behaviors, then engages in a process of evaluating where they can improve, and then practices those changes in real-life settings. Therefore, the three stages of metacognition are planning, monitoring, and evaluation.
Metacognition requires the child to see themselves as an active player in the learning process and to realize that learning is a dynamic, strategic activity. In the planning stage, a child asks questions such as: “What am I being asked to learn?” and “What methods have I used to learn before that worked?”
When the learning activity is ongoing, children must monitor how they are learning, asking, “Are my methods working?” and “What is and is not going well?” When the learning activity is over, the student must evaluate themself, asking, “How well did I learn this?” and “What could I do differently next time?”
Metacognition requires the child to be self-aware of their learning strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they are currently practicing. It also requires the discipline to plan, monitor, and evaluate themselves — to really be honest about how well or not well they are learning. It promotes discipline and self-awareness, which can lead to a better understanding of one’s self, and the increased ability to manage additional EFD issues. When a child understands a personal challenge area, they can learn to conquer it.
Time Management is an extremely valuable skill set that helps any student at any point in their life – and it’s especially useful for a student working to overcome EFD. It helps provide structure for the child and promotes discipline to counteract EFD issues. Here are some time management tips to try:
- Help children set their own master schedule, with time segments not just for schoolwork, but also for hobbies and downtime such as seeing friends or reading for pleasure. This also allows a child to see a visual representation of their effort so they can gain a better understanding of how and where they’re spending their time and energy.
- Have children set study goals for time segments – specific things they want to achieve when they study – to promote focus and discipline. Make sure to provide praise and potentially rewards as well when they meet their goals.
- Have children break projects down into chunks, or specific tasks that can be completed in a single sitting. Schedule these tasks to be completed with enough time before due dates. Planning ahead like this prevents the negative emotions that come with crunch-time work – such as anxiety – that exacerbate EFD symptoms.
- Have children study in short bursts with frequent mini-breaks to promote focus, positive emotions, and proper execution functions.
Establish a Daily Routine
Routines tie into time management in that they help promote healthy behaviors and good executive functions by adding important structure to a child’s life. Routines that ensure a child gets 8-10 hours of sleep each night, consistent homework times are maintained, and scheduled breaks and relaxed activities are enjoyed allow a child’s mind to become used to healthy patterns of behavior. This in turn helps avoid stress from unfinished work, anxiety from lack of structure, and depression from perceived failures and not understanding the topics presented to them.
The well-known psychological principle of operant conditioning explains that behavior that is rewarded with a positive outcome is more likely to be repeated. Working rewards into schedules and routines for positive behavior ultimately helps promote future repeat behavior, enforcing all of the above methods for dealing with EFD. Ideally, the inherent benefits of good EF strategies eventually become a source of intrinsic reward – but first the habits have to be established.
How to Treat Executive Function Disorder
Whereas all children need support for their underdeveloped executive functions, some children need more help than parents can provide alone. If you’ve tried many of the strategies explained in the previous section without success, your child may have an executive function disorder that requires professional support.
Various medications can be prescribed to assist a child with the underlying issue they are struggling with that is resulting in EFD. Stimulant medications to assist focus and drive, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to help with the underlying symptoms, and anti-psychotic medications to assist with any behavioral disorders are a few options a doctor may explore.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a short-term technique that focuses on changing a child’s thought patterns: how a child thinks and interprets life events, how they react to these situations, and how they feel throughout. It is a problem-specific, goal-orientated approach that requires a child’s active involvement (much like metacognition and the methods above).
Psychoeducational Evaluation is an assessment of how a student learns, measuring different types of reasoning, memory, and working efficiency. This can help identify learning challenges a child has; their strengths and weaknesses, and can provide a deeper understanding of their learning ability and things they can do to improve it.
Executive Function Coaching
The above mentioned treatment methods all help in laying a foundation for overcoming executive function disorders. The next step is to develop skills to compensate for weaknesses and fill in the gaps where schools fail to address students’ executive functioning needs. Teaching skills that apply directly to children’s school lives eases anxiety and allows for greater focus to get things done more effectively.
Educational therapy with executive function coaching is an EFD treatment method that we offer at La Jolla LearningWorks. Our program is one-on-one and involves teaching executive functioning strategies that help students build competency in their specific areas of weakness. Our students learn about their brains, how they learn, how they can study most effectively, and what strategies can help them move more smoothly through their daily lives.
We help students implement external visual tools, like planners, calendars, and digital task management tools, to address time management weaknesses. Working through a Socratic method and providing personalized feedback, we help students develop metacognitive skills. This approach gives our students a sense of control in their lives and empowers them to take a leading role in their education, and ultimately find success in their academic life and beyond.