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Strategies for Improving Executive Functioning
By: Learning Consultant Heather Blome
Rossman faculty have been taking extra steps to learn about executive functioning throughout this school year. We began our year learning from an outside professional, who is a licensed professional counselor, about different areas of executive functioning. Recently, many teachers stayed after school to view a webinar from Dr. Peg Dawson, who is one of the authors of Smart but Scattered. As the learning consultant for Rossman, and in my other professional role as a trained school psychologist who conducts psychological evaluations, I also gather a great deal of information on my own that may help support the students and families with whom I evaluate.
When we hear the term “executive functioning,” we may think of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), however there are many types of mental health conditions that may contribute to weaknesses in executive functioning. For instance, kids with learning disorders, anxiety, depression, etc. can also be affected by weaknesses in these processes of the brain. Some areas of executive functioning, as noted by Understood.org, include the following:
- working memory
- emotional regulation
- activation of a task
- inhibition or impulse control
- paying attention
There is a great deal of overlap when thinking about strategies to help children cope with their weaknesses in these areas. Here are some strategies we often discuss in our team meetings with the directors, teachers and/or parents:
- Working memory: A weakness in working memory can affect many organizational processes, including time management. When students are unable to measure the passage of time, they may need assistance planning using external sources of time management. Use of timers, clocks, time deadline reminders, alarms, etc. help them visualize time. Individuals with poor working memory also have difficulty holding information in mind. Therefore, making the information visual increases the likelihood they will remember it. Use of visual forms of information including charts, sticky-notes, signs, picture clues, and to-do lists are some of the ways to make the information visual.
- Emotional regulation: Consistency is key to supporting emotional “dysregulation.” Because kids that lack internal self-control, they rely on adults to set up the structure to help them calm down, reassure them that big feelings are ok, and give them some appropriate coping strategies, such as a chill corner, breathing activities, exerting physical energy, and/or a taking a break.
- Activation of a task: First, it is important to make sure the child understands the directions. Continue by chunking, breaking down each step of the task. Next, give the child a fixed amount of time to complete a portion of the task before checking back in with them. After periods of time requiring extensive focus, give a break for a fixed period of time. Because certain individuals, especially those with ADHD, often lack internal motivation and require external motivation to complete tasks, try using the “First...Then” approach. First homework, then high interest activity or reward.
- Impulse control or response inhibition: We often see our students struggling with impulse control, calling out in class or interrupting others when they are speaking. This is also referred to as acting without thinking. Have a visual reminder of raising a hand first, remind children of expectations before task begins, and give positive praise for when a student is able to control themselves to further encourage the positive behavior.
- Problem-solving: Help break down tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces. Often times children with ADHD feel like aversive tasks are going to take longer than they actually will. They also want to complete tasks quickly just to be finished. Help them set an appropriate amount of time for a task, reward them for effort, and encourage them to solve problems independently before asking for help. Help children learn to self-monitor by having conversations about situations where they were successful compared to a time they were not. Also, talking through their strengths and weaknesses helps them acquire self-insight or self-awareness. This will help them become better academic advocates for themselves.
- Planning/organizing: Systems that make sense for adults to keep things organized may not always make sense to their children. It is important to get the child’s input when organizing their spaces. Generally, students with weaknesses in these areas need fast and easy to organize systems. For example, the child may respond best to turning in completed work when there is just one homework folder versus one folder for each subject.
- Sustaining attention: It is optimal for kids to take movement breaks before being expected to sit and listen. Even still, some kids are just fidgety. Overactivity or fidgetiness not related to the task at hand helps some kids stay focused. To support this learning style, depending on their needs any of the following can be beneficial: use of flexible seating, preferential seating where students are allowed to stand in the back of the class at their desk, use of thinking putty, placing a sensory disc on the child’s chair, and/or trying a fidget that curbs distractibility rather than causing more of a disruption.
Because all children are different and because children’s needs change as they grow, it takes some trial and error to figure out how they learn best. Sometimes executive functions are developmental and other times they prove to be challenges that make learning difficult over a period of time or lifetime.
For more information, check out these great resources for parent education:
Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills. Request a free Rossman School brochure here.