It’s 8:00pm on Sunday night. You walk by your child’s room to find them sitting at their desk, looking completely frustrated and lost. You ask them what is wrong.
“I have an assignment due tomorrow, and I don’t even know where to begin. This is a waste of time. I’m done.” You ask if you can help, but they refuse. “There’s no point, I’m just going to fail anyway."
Feelings of stress, overwhelm and hopelessness are very common in kids who have weaknesses in Executive Functioning. Typical struggles include getting started on school work, forgetting important dates/information, having difficulty completing school work on time, and being resistant to planning/organizing.
What are Executive Functioning Skills?
Executive Functions Skills are part of a management system in our brain. They work together to help us:
- Get started, persist, and follow through on tasks
- Organize and manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions
- Plan, manage and organize our time
These skills are most helpful when we are trying to get things done that we don’t want to do; like school work and chores. It is much easier to get started and work through tasks that we enjoy!
Signs that your child may struggle with Executive Functioning:
Kids who struggle with Executive Functioning tend to avoid what is difficult for them, and are reluctant to ask for help. Here are some common signs and behaviours that might indicate weaknesses in Executive Functioning:
- Procrastinating on homework
- Difficulty listening to, following and remembering instructions
- Spending too much time online/playing video games, when they should be working
- Difficulty breaking work into smaller parts
- Difficulty estimating how long a project will take
- Lost/skipped/late assignments
- Lack of an awareness of time
- Difficulty transitioning in and out of activities
On the surface, it might look like your pre-teen/teen doesn’t care about school, and that they aren’t motivated to do their school work; however, in many cases what is going on beneath the surface is lagging Executive Functioning Skills.
They don’t understand why they have so much trouble getting started on tasks, why they are completely overwhelmed when looking at big assignments, and why it is so difficult to get work in on time. These feelings of frustration and anxiety can be very debilitating to students of all ages, and can lead to low self-esteem and learned helplessness.
It is also important to note that weaknesses in Executive Functioning tend to be prevalent in those with ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and those who land on the Autism Spectrum.
How to work with your child to take action:
To help your child of any age to work on developing Executive Functioning Skills, it is important to create a safe space for them to talk to you about what is difficult for them.
Set up a time to talk, when you are both calm. It can take time and patience to get to this point, as some kids, especially teens, really struggle talking about what is difficult for them.
Once you reach the point where your child is comfortable sharing what is difficult about school, you can begin to discuss how they can work around these difficulties. They will generally be more receptive to trying a strategy if they are taught how to use the strategy, learn why the strategy can work for their area of difficulty, and have someone work with them to practice the strategy. This also provides accountability, which increases the likelihood of follow through on the new strategy.
Experiment with a strategy:
- Collaborate - Have them pick one thing that is difficult for them, and ask them if they would be willing to experiment with one strategy or tool. A common difficulty with time management skills is working on transitioning in and out of activities. An example could be transitioning from playing a video game to doing homework or a chore.
- Break the strategy into steps - Work with your child to outline each step of how they will use the strategy/routine/tool. Writing the steps down, makes the task less daunting, and more achievable. Here are some things to consider when planning a transitioning strategy:
- Have them decide if they would like to try using an alarm or timer to help them get started on their homework or chore. You could show them a reminder phone app, a cube timer (found on Amazon), or use the alarm on their phone.
- If they decide to try using an alarm, ask if they prefer to add one snooze to the alarm, and then do their homework or chore.
- If using a timer, a loud timer, that is placed where they need to stand up to turn it off, can be helpful for breaking the focus from the video game to moving on to the homework or chore.
- Ask them if they would like you to remind them, after a certain amount of time has past, if they haven’t started the homework or chore. Also ask them what they would like you to say for this reminder, so that it isn’t seen as nagging.
- Help them set the alarm or timer.
- Practice - Ask them if they would like to try it on their own, or with minimal support from you. Practice the strategy repeatedly. Let them know that you are there to help them.
- Reflect - Reflect on what worked and what didn’t work with the strategy. Reflecting develops self-awareness, and helps them learn to adjust and find strategies that work for them.
- Revise - Revise the strategy as needed, and/or discuss another one to try.
Everyone has different strengths, difficulties, interests, and goals. It is about trial and error to find out what works for them.
The goal is for them to be willing to take a small step forward with a new strategy. If the step feels too big, it will likely overwhelm them. This isn’t a quick fix. Sometimes it will feel like they take one step forward and two steps back. That’s okay!
It is an emotional process, and it takes time and patience to develop new strategies and skills. Celebrate the tiny victories, and encourage them to keep taking little steps forward. Let them know that you are in their corner, and that it is difficult to learn the skill of getting started and pushing through things that you don’t want to do. Quite often, one tiny step forward makes a huge impact towards achieving their goals.
During this time, anxiety and depression among teens are on the rise. If you feel that your child’s behaviours extend beyond Executive Function weakness, or you would like support in communicating with you child, your family doctor can provide guidance and resources.
Cheryl Keller is an Academic Coach & Learning Disability Specialist, and is the owner of School/Life Balance. She works with students from late elementary school through college/university with a focus on developing Executive Functioning Skills. She has also been trained to teach study skills, and incorporates this training into her coaching. Her professional and sensitive approach, encourages students to take risks, as they grow and unlock their inner wisdom and brilliance! For more information, or for a free consultation, email Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org