Helping Your Child Build Executive Function Skills
Does your child struggle to remember the instructions you just told him? Does she have a meltdown every time things don’t go as planned? Does it look like a hurricane blew through his room no matter how many times you ask him to clean it? From planning to self-regulating, executive function skills are used every day in almost every aspect of our lives. But something that comes so naturally for most can actually be a challenge for Complex Learners. Most children with learning or attention issues also struggle with executive function skills. These issues can impact their school life, their friendships, and their time at home.
But by understanding where your child is struggling, you can help your child improve their executive function skills! Check out our tips to improve the three main areas of executive function.
Working memory is the ability for a child to remember what she’s working on and learning in the current moment. The ability to hold on to new information and use it for the task at hand is critical for immediate use but also important for organizing information to use later. Poor working memory makes it difficult to follow directions, keep up with classwork and store information in an organized manner. The key to helping improve working memory is to present the information in new ways.
For example, instead of just repeating instructions have your child make a mental picture of the instructions you’ve just given him. If you’ve asked her to clean her room, ask her to picture what it will look like when she puts her clothes away or clears off her desk. You can even take a picture of a desk or closet when it is organized to show your child what it will look like when the area is clean.
Make things visible! Whether it’s having a calendar on their bedroom wall depicting each day’s schedule or a checklist by the door to make sure they have everything for the school day, visual reminders can be helpful for anyone struggling with working memory. Attach a laminated picture to a backpack or sports bag to show your child what needs to be inside.
If you’re working on homework together or going over the schedule for the family reunion next weekend, make the experience multi-sensory! Shoot some hoops as you’re going over instructions or practice a new math concept with jellybeans. Multisensory instruction helps kids tap into their learning strengths to make connections and form memories.
Children who struggle with executive function don’t easily adapt to a change in plans or an unseen obstacle. This is because it can be tough for Complex Learners to see past what was planned or what was supposed to happen. To help this, encourage your child to practice flexible thinking.
While routines are necessary, it’s also beneficial for your child if you switch things up now and again. It doesn’t have to be a major change. For example, if you always have pizza on Friday nights, switch it up to pasta. Maybe you always play Monopoly at family game night, next time try Clue! Even minor changes to the routine can help your child see that it’s okay to mix things up and learn to go with the flow.
Children who struggle with thinking flexibly tend to think very rigidly. There’s nothing that helps this more than sharing jokes and telling puns! These fun conversation aids show children that words can have multiple meanings and how to differentiate these meanings in a conversation. Check out other great suggestions for games to play with your child to encourage flexible thinking.
A child who struggles with executive function skills may also exhibit impulsive behavior or trouble regulating emotions. She may interrupt conversations and disrupt games, become easily frustrated, speak out of turn, be intolerant of feedback and corrections or have tantrums that last far longer than most kids.
Encourage your child to practice mindfulness as a way of regaining control. Try a Wolf School favorite! Have your child sit in a comfortable position with his hands facing up on her knees and close her eyes. As he takes a deep breath in have him tap his thumb to his remaining fingers and say a positive mantra like “I am so calm” or “I can do this.” Have him repeat this a few times.
As your child is working on a task, whether it’s homework or a chore, remind her to take frequent breaks. These breaks can help her get out some extra energy so she can return to what she was doing ready to keep at it! Be sure to have a timer set up so once the clock runs out she knows her break is over and it’s time to get back to the task at hand.
Identifying feelings, setting clear expectations, encouraging strategies for cooling down or taking a break, modeling behavior and offering a lot of positive praise when children demonstrate control (e.g., waiting their turn or not interrupting) are important ways to help children develop self-control. Finding opportunities to implement each of these and understanding that your child is not purposefully acting impulsively can make a big difference.
Struggles with executive function can impact every aspect of your child’s life, but with these tips, you can work with your child to help strengthen their skills! It takes time and a lot of patience, and you may need to try a number of strategies to find what works best for your child. What have you tried at home to improve working memory, flexible thinking, or self-control?