« Parenting

Executive Functioning - Part 2

by Rural Virtual Learning Academy

Part 1 of this post was last week and detailed strategies for assisting your child with executive functioning skills.  If you missed it, take a look back - the post included strategies for helping your child be more organized, structuring your home environment for the benefit of your child, the utilization of tools and visuals, and some reminders about consistent parenting and positive reinforcement.  Please take a look back if your child needs work in any of those areas. 

For strategies to support study skills, task completion, increasing working memory skills, and supporting emotional and behavioral regulation, keeping reading. 

Study Skill Strategies

Study skills encompass many executive functioning skills such as organization, time management, the ability to prioritize and plan, task initiation, sustained attention, metacognition, and goal-directed persistence.  In order to support positive study skills, students need a supportive environment that includes adult assistance in following a reliable routine as well as physical tools.  A daily schedule for independent study times at home and at school helps your child to create a habit of studying and over time, your child will learn to follow this routine independently.  Help your child choose a time and place that he will be able to focus best.  Help your child create a list of work that needs to be accomplished.  If your child uses an assignment notebook (which is strongly recommended in grades 5 and up), help your child to think through how to prioritize what needs to be accomplished first. To assist with sustained attention during study time, you may need to sit with your child to provide visual or verbal reminders to stay on track.  Providing encouragement and praise can also help your child maintain focus and motivation toward the task.  Alarms and timers can be helpful for some children who need a concrete example of time.  As your child practices this strategy, you will be able to provide less and less supervision.

Tasks that are long-term or open-ended are the most difficult for people with executive functioning weaknesses.  These types of tasks require appropriate planning and persistence and can be easily overwhelming to your child.  The first thing you can do in this situation is to make sure your child understands what the expectations are for the task.  It may also be helpful to provide your child with some ideas or a sample of what the project may ultimately look like.  Help your child structure the task by offering choices and creating a template that he can follow and expand upon.  This is not to suggest that you take over or do the project for your child, but guiding him through the completion may be necessary to systematically teach the executive functioning skills required to be successful in this case.  To encourage metacognition (which is the ability to reflect on your own thinking), model and teach how to problem-solve the task by brainstorming, organizing and constructively evaluating the pros and cons of ones own ideas.  You can use a calendar to plan out the parts and completion dates of long-term projects and provide reminders as your child needs them for when these dates come due.  Remember, these skills are not natural for the individual that struggles with executive functioning weaknesses, so as frustrating as it is to sound like a broken record, your child needs to hear that message until it is automatic in his own brain. 

Children with executive functioning weaknesses are often unable to use future goals as motivation and struggle with the concept of time, so he will likely need more positive reinforcement and more monitoring with smaller rewards for completion of steps of the project rather than just focusing on the end goal and its rewards.  Utilize small “rewards” for completion of parts of the projects such as an activity your child enjoys (getting to pick the game the family plays at game night that week, going out to eat at their favorite place, etc.) and have a larger “reward” for the ultimate completion of the project (going to the zoo, gaining a coveted privilege, etc.). 

Increasing Working Memory Skills

Working memory is an executive functioning skill that involves your child’s ability to focus, absorb information, and sustain attention through distractions, and then using the information to carry out a task.  Skills such as note-taking, completing multi-step problems, reading comprehension, learning and recalling information in short-term memory, and keeping track of materials all require working memory.  The first step is to increase your child’s attention to the information that must be remembered.  This might require you to modify the way the information is presented (think added visuals, explanations, providing information that helps your child connect the content to something they already know, etc.).  Work to limit external distractors (noises, large amounts of activity in his area, etc.) and consider internal distractors (emotional concerns, worries, etc.) that may impact your child’s ability to focus.  Using mnemonic strategies is one way to help your child remember things.  Other strategies include rhymes, visualizations, songs, and stories.  Utilizing tools such as charts and timelines can be helpful to attach meaning to new information.  For reading comprehension specifically, teach your child how to take notes about what he is reading to create a structure that facilitates reflection.  To support long-term retention, utilize strategies such as reviewing and rehearsing information and do so in multiple modalities so that all the senses are involved (sight, sound, smell, tactile (movement).  Some examples for reinforcing the letter recognition of “Z” for a pre-schooler are to have your child draw pictures of the letter Z, make up stories about the letter, sing songs about it, try to form your body in the shape of the letter, etc.  An example for an older child who is learning about the constitution would be to read through some text about the constitution, watch and listen to an online video about it, find something unknown or interesting that is compelling about the writers of the constitution, listen to a song that connects some of the content to your child’s everyday life, etc.  If you don’t have time or unsure of how to obtain this information, brainstorm with your child.  The very process of trying to find more information is helping your child to engage in the material.  The more senses that are incorporated in the learning, the better!

Strategies To Support Emotional and Behavioral Regulation

Although executive functioning skills are known to impact academic achievement, they are also an important part of social and behavioral functioning.  Children that have weak executive functioning skills also often struggle with emotional regulation/control, flexibility in thinking, impulsivity, and monitoring one’s own behaviors.  To assist with emotional control, help your child identify the behaviors that are difficult for him using his own words (Example:  “I get really angry and want to run away from things.”) and help your child identify potential triggers for the behavior (Example:  “When someone says something mean or doesn’t listen to me”).  Teach your child a rule that can be followed when the trigger is experienced, such as using self-talk or another self-calming strategy (Examples:  count to ten, do some deep breathing, tell yourself that what the other person is saying doesn’t carry the meaning you think it does, etc.).  Do some role-playing with your child to help this to feel more natural and automatic.  You can also create social stories tailored to a specific situation to describe how it can be handled best.  If you are around when a trigger occurs, use a visual, verbal or physical cue to help your child recall the rule you came up with.  To help your child be more sensitive to others’ reactions to his behaviors, teach him how to monitor others’ facial expressions and body language.  This may ultimately become the cue to remind your child to follow the rule (Example:  When my hands get sweaty I know that I am starting to get angry and need to walk away and count to ten).  To help your child to see another individual’s point of view, role-play the situation from another perspective.  Over time, you should see improvement in your child’s ability to control his behavior, which will have positive impacts on his social relationships and overall functioning.

 *Some of the information from this article was derived from the WSPA Sentinel 2012.

Jessica Martin, Ed.S., NCSP

RVA School Psychologist & Director of Special Education & Student Services