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Understanding Executive Function

Helping Your Child With Executive Dysfunction

For most of us, executive function skills have become second nature. When we have a full to-do list – our brain automatically kicks in to help us prioritize. When plans we made weeks ago change at the last minute, our flexible thinking comes out and helps us go with the flow. Executive function skills are required for practically everything that we do in day-to-day life, but what happens when you struggle with executive dysfunction?

Many Complex Learners struggle with executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, impulse control, flexible thinking, working memory, and emotional control. When a child struggles with executive function, it’s not always easily recognized. This struggle can present itself in a multitude of ways like issues with time management or starting a task, being easily distracted, having very big reactions to little things due to poor self-regulation, poor listening skills, and trouble with working memory.

Wolf’s own team of experts – Kelly McDonald, Kristyn Sequeira, and Leah Valentine – recently presented at Hamilton Institutes 3rd Annual Learning Differences conference and shared some tips for helping these students in the classroom. But these issues don’t just present in the classroom and often parents are left wondering what they can do to help their child at home. We’ve adapted some of Wolf’s favorite tips and strategies for you to use at home. Read on for 4 ways you can help your child with executive dysfunction at home!

  1. Be clear

When talking with your child, be clear as you describe the plan for the day. This can help alleviate anxiety when they know what they are expected to be doing and what comes next. Break down the plan for them by explaining that first, we have to clean our rooms and then we can go to the park

Complex Learners who struggle with executive function often struggle with how to start a task or what a finished product will look like so it’s important to be clear in your directions. It can be easy to get frustrated when you instruct your child to set the table and come out to find nothing has been done. But your child may not understand the steps it takes to get to a fully set table. So, break it down for them by breaking it into chunks. First, get your supplies of plates, cutlery, napkins, and glasses. Then, set 4 plates down in front of each set. Next, place a napkin to the left of each plate, finally put one fork and one knife on each napkin. Finally, put a glass in front of every plate.

  1. Use visuals and minimize distractions

When a child struggles with executive function, their brains can easily be overloaded with information that they just aren’t capable of holding onto. This is because they struggle with working memory. That means that even simple directions can feel overwhelming to your child. To help this, try using visuals and minimizing distractions. One of Wolf’s favorite techniques is to take photos of what “ready” looks like. If your child never seems to remember all the steps it takes to be ready to leave the house for school. One day work with them step by step and take a photo of the final look (backpack packed and on, shoes and jacket on, teeth brushed, etc.). This can help you decrease language in your instructions by being able to prompt them to simply match the photo.

When your child is tasked with organizing their school folders, it can be easy to agree to let them do it in front of the television or in the kitchen as you’re getting dinner ready. But children with executive dysfunction are easily distracted internally (by their own thoughts and imagination) and externally (by what’s happening around them). When you give them a task like planning or organizing that they may already struggle with, have them work in an environment that’s as distraction-free as possible.

  1. Encourage Self Talk 

Working through an assignment or task can take a lot of work for Complex Learners. Encourage them to talk themselves through the situation. Sometimes saying the first step out loud can prompt your child to remember the next step and when they say it themselves, you are helping to encourage independence in your child!

Be sure to model this for your child as you work through things on your own. As you’re driving around, say to yourself, “First I need to go to the bank, next I have to go to the dry cleaners, and last I will go to the grocery store.

  1. Be a helper

You can help your child work through their executive function issues without taking over and doing the task for them. First, it’s important to let your child know that you understand their struggle but know they can do it! Even saying simple things like “I know planning can be really hard for you but I’m so proud to see you planning out how you’re going to tackle your history project!” can make a really big difference

Also, remember that repetition can go a long way. If you see that your child is trying to complete a task themselves but keeps getting stuck on the next step, it’s okay to keep repeating the plan. For Complex Learners, it can take some time before they are able to fully process everything that has been said to them.

Finally, to help your child with working memory have them repeat the plan for the day or the instructions back to you. This can help them with language processing and with comprehension.

Struggling with executive function can make seemingly simple tasks difficult but with patience and the right strategies, you can help your child strengthen their skills!

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