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Improve Your Child’s Executive Functioning Skills

Posted by Chris Starr on Nov 1, 2023 2:10:48 PM

Those who struggle with Executive Functioning can often face challenges with activation (getting started on a project), focus (avoiding distraction), effort (following through on tasks), emotion (self-control and self-regulation), and action (monitoring progress and staying on track).

In a webinar for parents entitled “Executive Functioning 101,” Oak Knoll Upper School Academic Support Counselor Kelly Ross explained, “Executive Functioning is critical for social behaviors, emotional well-being, and goal-directed behaviors.” She stressed that under-developed executive functioning skills are not a character flaw, but a neurological issue, that can affect social emotional skills across the board, but can be improved through targeted assistance.

Though Ross works with Upper School students at Oak Knoll to recognize areas for improvement and assist them in honing their executive functioning capabilities, she offers this advice to all parents on how they can support executive functioning skill development at home.

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If students have challenges with activation or getting started on projects and assignments:

  • Set up a daily agenda or planner in communal space at home. Parents can nudge students to frequently revisit the planner and observe tasks that are “on the runway.”
  • Have them separate a task into baby steps and create their own deadlines for each step.
  • Plug in deadlines for each step in the planner to avoid being overwhelmed and envision a clear path to larger results.
  • Rather than adding tasks to a written “to do list,” use the calendar planner as a more manageable tool for visualizing tasks and milestones.
  • Encourage the student to start a task in the presence of support — such as in a kitchen communal area rather than bedroom.
  • Help them get started with the use of an “accountability buddy.” This could be a peer, a sibling, or an adult. Even at the Upper School level, students may need this extra layer of oversight.

If students have challenges with focus and are frequently distracted:

  • Take breaks during tasks at regular intervals – use a timer to indicate a break time but not one connected to a phone.
  • Try the Pomodoro Method — a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo which uses a timer to break work into intervals. Practitioners typically devote 25 minutes to tasks and then take a five minute break to do something completely unrelated.
  • Have the student establish an “absolutes list” – designating what must get done by a particular date, and what might wait or be less of a priority.

If students have challenges with effort or following through:

  • Intersperse work with physical movements and food breaks. Pump up the physical energy with a walk up and down stairs or take the dog around the block.
  • Avoid any breaks that involve screen time not related to project tasks.
  • Set up a system that provides rewards for completing baby steps.
  • Start with the hard tasks first – then other tasks won’t seem so daunting.
  • Older students could work with a partner or study group for additional motivation.

For students who face challenges with emotion, self-regulation, and self-control:

  • Create a “parking lot” on paper where unwanted thoughts and feelings can be deposited for processing later.
  • Allot some time for expressive writing, journaling, or the creation of letters to specific individuals that are not actually meant to be sent.
  • Implement a regular exercise routine. Research shows the positive impact on emotional regulation after at least eight weeks of aerobic exercise.

For students who have challenges with memory, and memorization:

  • Have the student talk through steps of a task or project out loud. In general, encourage the student to talk out loud while studying. This is a muti-sensory approach that can be used to better encode information.
  • Speech to text products can be assistive in allowing the student to brainstorm and get thoughts on paper.
  • Have the student hand write notes to aid in remembering.
  • Use color-coded post-it reminders to symbolize aspects of a project.

For students challenged by action and staying on track:

  • Designate an individual for the student to report to and to show work as it is completed in stages.
  • Have the student learn to say no to irrelevant or distracting requests.
  • Have the student create “false deadlines” for certain milestones — deadlines that the student should meet but have no serious consequences associated if they are not.
  • Implement a reward system. For example, “If you finish that essay by Thursday, you can go to the homecoming game on Friday.”

At home, in addition to the specific techniques above, parents can encourage students to conduct a weekly or bi-weekly “systems check” — clean out and overhaul their backpack, preview the upcoming week, and frontload their planner with important or recurring appointments, practices, travel plans, assignments, etc.

Students should also be encouraged to periodically optimize their computer – bookmarking school websites, checking and responding to email regularly, and reducing the size of their inbox.

Finally, assist your student in locating an optimized study space – an organized and clean space, free from distraction, with good lighting, and school supplies.

Throughout the process, parents should remain abreast of their student’s current grades and progress — making a list of missing assignments or anything needed to communicate better with a teacher.

As with any challenge — physical or neurological — progress can be made with determination and persistence. Success in improving executive functioning skills is the sum of enacting small efforts — repeated day in and day out — to become routine.

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