Executive Functioning: What You Need to Know
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Helping your child organize and prepare
My daughter and I arrived at her friend’s house across town. The plan was that the girls would walk over to Taco Bell for lunch, and my daughter’s friend’s mom and I would share some stir-fry at the house. This was something we had done a few times, and I thought my daughter was prepared.
She had no money, no sunglasses or hat (this was a hot summer day), worn-out flip-flops, and no purse or pockets. “What were you thinking?” I hissed. She just looked at me. She had no idea what she should have done; she wasn’t thinking.
Like many of our kids, she did not have the ability to plan, organize, prepare, or execute what she needed to be able to walk to lunch. She did not have the executive functioning (EF) skills required to anticipate the future and prepare for it.
When your child has weak EF skills, you know it. It’s not the same as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), though most kids with ADHD show some EF deficiencies. Our kids are the ones who are always missing something—a sock, an assignment, homework, lunch, coats—and they can’t tell you what they need for tomorrow.
Every person is going to display his or her own unique set of EF issues differently, which can include impulsiveness, poor social judgment, egocentrism, difficulty interpreting the behavior of others, perseveration, poorly regulated attention, disorganization (in thinking, talking, and acting), weak goal formulation, ineffective planning, decreased flexibility/shifting, slowed processing, concrete thinking, immature problem solving, weak self-monitoring, inefficient responses to feedback/consequences, reduced initiation, and dulled emotional responses.
I’ve heard of EF as being like the conductor or the manager of your brain. It’s controlled by the frontal part of the brain that uses a working memory to anticipate, regulate, sustain, and adjust to complete tasks. Having weak EF skills encompasses more than just being forgetful or impulsive.
EF issues can be caused by genetics, trauma, brain injuries, or immature brain development. Symptoms can also improve over time with maturity and learning coping skills. Smartphone apps can help, as can lots of repetition to help your brain develop neural pathways.
A better way to understand it is that good executive function means that a person can imagine himself in the future—at school, practice, or a party—and know what he needs to have, do, and bring to fulfill that image of himself there. It’s the lack of forward thinking that is a hallmark of poor EF skills.
Russell A. Barkley, an expert on ADHD and EF, wrote in his book Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved (Guilford Press, 2012), that it’s the ability of “self-monitoring, self-stopping, seeing the future, saying the future, feeling the future, and playing with the future so as to effectively ‘plan and go’ toward that future.”
So after I took a few deep breaths and we got through the lunch date, I took my daughter home and helped her imagine her future. One thing I realized is that I was doing all the conducting. I wasn’t giving her the tools she needed to become her own boss.
Like so many of our Solo Mom parenting habits, we are much more efficient when we run the show. So we pack the lunches way past the time our kids could be doing it. We organize their rooms, their backpacks, and their sports gear. We bring forgotten items to school. We keep the sunglasses and money in our bags. Most kids get used to us managing, but they have the executive functioning to figure it out for themselves. My daughter did not have the skills.
I realized that I had to stop doing it all and give my daughter a chance to learn the skills I clearly had down. I was not helping her by helping her. So we took a new approach.
These are some of the things I tried:
- Take pictures. When we do a jigsaw puzzle, we look at the picture of what it will look like finished to guide us. Kids do it with Lego sets, too. Take a picture of your child dressed and ready for school. Take one of the soccer bag with everything in it and attach the picture to a luggage tag on the bag. Talk to your child and then take pictures or make a video of things that are organized. This will help her visualize her future self.
- Make a list. When there is a multistep project (doing laundry, writing a paper, getting ready in the morning), break it down. Start with the end in mind—how it will look when you are finished—and then work backwards. The list itself can then be stuck on a calendar or color-coded (red folder is finished work; green folder is work to do).
- Anticipate problems. Brainstorm with your child ideas for what to do if something goes wrong. Before he forgets his homework again, write down several options of what he could do. Suggest he keep the list.
- Make decisions. This skill uses working memory and future thinking. To weigh two choices, we have to consider what we know about them and how it will feel and look to choose one. Practice this by saying out loud how you consider two options.
- Use humor. Using novelty or humor is a great strategy for every learner. When you are weighing choices, include some absurd ones. With my daughter, I wondered if she should bring a llama to carry her money. When I felt her getting annoyed with our conversation, I laid on the floor and spoke very quietly.
The most important thing we can do is to remind our kids often that whatever they struggle with, we love them, not in spite of their challenges but just because they are who they are. Remind them how wonderful and amazing they are—it will help both your heart and theirs.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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