Effective Strategies to Support Your Child with Executive-Functioning Challenges
Children who struggle with executive functioning have difficulty managing their emotions, resisting their impulses, and keeping necessary information in mind in order to effectively execute their daily tasks. When children don't have well-developed executive functioning skills, they struggle to plan ahead, stay organized, stay motivated, persist, and problem-solve toward task completion. Children appear forgetful, messy, disorganized, unmotivated, unfocused, and easily overwhelmed. These children are not intentionally falling short of their daily demands, nor are the willfully disobeying the adults in their lives. Rather, these children lack skills and often feel frustrated with themselves for not being able to meet their expectations. Children who struggle need your consistent support, structure, and feedback to help them develop the skills they need to do well and feel good about themselves.
Children who struggle with executive functioning skills benefit from externalizing information they struggle to keep in mind. Here are some executive functioning challenges and some corresponding externalizing strategies you can try as you support your child to develop their skills.
Goal setting. Help your child identify a meaningful goal that they want to accomplish.
Tip: help your child externalize their goal by writing it down, drawing it out, or taking a picture of it and keeping it in their workspace.
Planing, organizing, and prioritizing. Help your child break down larger goals into smaller tasks. Help them plan when to complete each task to meet a deadline.
Tip: use colored paper and/or pens to help them write down their larger goals, prioritize them in order, and break each goal down into smaller tasks so they have a clear visual of what they need to do and when they need to do it. Organizers or timetables are also great visual aids.
Intrinsic motivation. Help your child stay motivated to initiate and persist on a task by helping them identify a meaningful goal.
Tip: implementing a reward system can help a child stay on track to complete their task. Collaborate with your child and develop a reward system that they are interested in.
Sustained attention. Help your child minimize distractions in their workspace, have access to everything they will need, and schedule in lots of breaks between tasks.
Tip: turn off any notifications that may distract them, keep their workspace organized (e.g., labels for where things belong), set them up with tools to help regulate and keep their attention engaged (e.g., music, fidgets, weighted blanket, therapy brush, wobble stool), and help them create a list of things they could do during a brain break.
Behavior inhibition. Help your child refrain from acting on urges that will move them farther from their goal.
Tip: help them create space to reflect before they act. Keeping a picture of a pause button, an elastic on their wrist to snap, teaching them how to use a timer to pause and reflect, and/or creating a visual decision-making tree can help them pause before acting on an urge. The idea is to help them consider whether an action will keep them on track toward their goals (do it) or move them farther away from their goal (don't do it).
Working memory. Help your child have access to the information they will need for the task they are working.
Tip: help your child take notes as they work on a task to help prompt or remind them of what they struggle to keep in mind. Color-coding information using different colored paper or pens is helpful for some children to keep their information organized and easy to refer to.
Self-awareness. Help your child regularly check-in with themselves to see where they are at emotionally and attentionally.
Tip: keep a simple visual feelings chart or distress scale in their workspace to help them stay aware of their level of calm alertness.
Self-monitoring and self-regulation. Help your child recognize when they are getting off track of their goals and what they need to redirect themselves to get back on track.
Tip: plan in advance for what they can do to step away and regulate when they identify that they have hit a distress level of 4 out of 10, or have moved into the yellow zone, for example. You can help them create a simple plan for regulating and keep it next to their feelings/distress chart in their workspace for their easy reference. Positive self-talk could further help them re-engage with a task.
Time management. Help your child stay aware of time and manage their time effectively when working on a task.
Tip: timers help externalize time in an easy and effective way. Try using a time timer app, website timer, digital timer, or sand timer. The idea is to help your child see how much time they have, how much time has passed, and how much time they have left to complete a task. Teach them how to set the timer on their own to give them a sense of agency.
Decision-making and problem-solving. Help your child develop their cognitive flexibility and abstract reasoning skills when challenges arise.
Tip: use paper and colored pens to help them manually manipulate information. Help them write down their goal, the problem, and possible solutions and outcomes. Be creative to engage their brains - tear up paper, move it around, put information together in different ways so they can see how things interact and impact each other.
Self-advocacy. Support your child to effectively communicate and negotiate their needs to you in order to do well.
Tip: Encourage your child to speak up for themselves (if they are overwhelmed or need something) and be sure to validate their efforts, struggles, and experiences without judgment. The idea is for your child to feel heard and supported as they learn about how to navigate themselves and their environment toward goal completion.
The less developed your child's skills are, the more patience, hands-on support, and structure they will need from you. The idea is to support your child toward independence. Be there to guide and coach them to realize their own ideas so that they can gain a sense of competence, confidence, and autonomy in their learning process. Be your child's sounding board to teach them how to think, as opposed to telling them what to think. Remember that learning is not a steady and upward trend. Expect that your child will struggle, start to do well, then stumble and fall again. Be ready to move in with support and back away as needed to give your child the space they need to make mistakes, learn, and grow. Lastly, remember to celebrate small successes every chance you get to let your child know you see them doing well. They need your constant patience, encouragement, and positive feedback as they continue to navigate their sea of challenges.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
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The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired - By Daniel Siegel & Tina Bryson
Childmind Institute - resource for mental health and learning disorders
Understood - resource for learning and attention issues
Social Learning- resource for understanding how to support social learning in children