Executive functioning issues can be complex. Pediatric executive functioning issues, in particular, are a struggle for both children and their parents. While it may be frustrating if your child doesn’t seem to pay attention, can’t stay on task, or displays difficulty with self-control, chances are they are struggling with executive functioning issues.
The good news is that pediatric therapists commonly treat executive functioning weaknesses in children. And, there are strategies they can use to help improve executive functioning. Through a combination of pediatric therapy and at-home strategies, you can help strengthen your child’s brain and improve the ability to successfully perform daily skills affected by executive functioning issues.
Before we dive into some strategies to help improve executive functioning, let’s take a closer look at what it is and the role it plays in our brains.
What Is Executive Functioning?
Executive functions are the awareness and directive capacities of the mind. They are the skills needed to plan, organize and complete tasks. Children who display executive functioning issues often struggle with working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Because executive functioning issues display weaknesses in a set of mental skills that are essential to learning, these issues can be difficult for parents and children to navigate.
Executive functioning skills in children allow them to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions. It’s how we plan, manage time, and organize. Executive functions give us the skills to put our thoughts, actions, and emotions to work so we can get things done and accomplish tasks.
Skill Sets of Executive Functioning
When it comes to learning, executive functioning pertains to three groups of skills that are essential. These skills are:
- Working Memory. The ability to keep information in your mind and use it some way. For example, reading comprehension questions on a test require a student to read a passage, hold onto the information, and answer the questions.
- Cognitive Flexibility. This is also known as flexible thinking. It is a skill that allows us to think about something in more than one way. This skill allows us to answer questions in multiple ways or find relationships between different concepts.
- Inhibitory Control. This includes the skill of self-control. It also helps kids regulate their emotions, limit impulsive actions, and ignore distractions or temptations. This skill set will keep a child from blurting out answers in class.
Essentially, executive function is responsible for our ability to:
- Pay attention
- Organize and plan
- Initiate tasks and stay focused on them through completion
- Regulate emotions
- Self-monitor (keep track of what we’re doing)
While executive skills continue to develop into the mid-twenties, the majority of their development occurs rapidly during early childhood and adolescence. That’s why identifying executive functioning weaknesses in children is important. Once they have been identified, there are strategies that can help improve these skills. There are also ongoing supports that can help children facing these challenges thrive in both school and life.
Signs Your Child Faces Challenges with Executive Function
Awareness is an important part of identifying issues in childhood development. Executive function weaknesses can be identified much easier when parents know the signs that their child is struggling. While executive functioning issues can impact children in a number of different ways, there are several ways you may be able to identify these weaknesses.
Many parents report executive function weaknesses to display signs of ADHD. This is understandable because ADHD IS an issue with executive function. The most common signs your child struggles with executive functioning skills are:
- Forgetting what they have just heard or read
- Difficulty prioritizing tasks
- Trouble starting tasks
- Trouble completing tasks
- Difficulty following directions or a sequence of steps
- Difficulty accepting changes in routines or with rules
- Trouble switching focus from one task to another
- Obsessing or fixating on things
- Becoming overly emotional
- Trouble organizing thoughts
- Difficulty keeping track of one’s belongings
- Difficulty managing one’s time
As mentioned earlier, executive function skills develop rapidly in early childhood and adolescence. They continue to develop through the 20s. Because of the length of time over which these skills develop, you might notice different signs based on the grade level of your child. Here’s a breakdown of signs based on age and grade level:
- Preschool to Grade 2
- Easily frustrated
- Gives up on tasks without asking for help
- Difficulty following direction
- Throw tantrums over minor issues
- Insists on doing things a certain way
- Inability to answer questions directly
- Grades 3 to 7
- Starts a task and gets distracted before finishing
- Mixes up school assignments
- Brings home the wrong books to complete homework
- Overly messy-can’t keep desk or backpack clean
- Cannot plan playdates with friends
- Focuses on unimportant parts of a conversation
- Can’t keep track of time
- Engages in risky behavior
- Unable to work in groups
- Forgets to complete tasks
- Fills out forms or applications incomplete
- Overly optimistic
- Unrealistic in their thoughts
Strategies to Strengthen the Brain’s Executive Functions
Early identification of your child’s executive function weaknesses can be a major benefit to the advancement of their learning. With the right support, your child can prosper despite their executive function issues.
As they get older, your children will be able to understand their weaknesses and help maintain their own growth and development. While you may need to enlist the help of a professional and provide your child with additional school supports, there are always ways you can help as their parent.
Here are some great tips for parents to help make learning fun and make everyday life easier for a child who faces executive functioning issues. Help your child find success by:
- Providing positive feedback when your child uses their executive functions effectively. Congratulate them for even the smallest accomplishments that show progress with their executive functions.
- Help your child use mistakes to build their skills. Mistakes can be a prime learning opportunity if children are taught to recognize them and correct them. Praise your child when they do this.
- Stay organized at home. This will help minimize distractions for your child.
- Create an environment that is as predictable as possible. This allows children to focus easier.
- Download printable goals calendars, a chores list, and any other organizer that can help your child stay on track.
- Use picture schedules to help your child stay organized.
- Play games with the whole family that help build executive functioning skills.
- Keep an open line of communication with your child’s teacher and any other professional that provides support. Ask for tips on how you can help improve your child’s specific weaknesses.
- Take time to sit with your child to do homework. Encourage them to take their time. Review it when they are done and guide them in correcting any mistakes.
- Discover organizational apps for teenagers that can be downloaded directly to their tablet or phone.
- Practice strong organizational skills in your own life to model these skills for your children.
- Talk to a pediatric therapist or other professional about mindfulness and how it can help your child.
- Ask a lot of questions. When your child accomplishes something they would normally struggle with, talk to them about the steps they took to complete the task. Additionally, when they struggle, ask about things that might have gotten in the way or made completing the task difficult. This will help you identify areas in need of support while simultaneously teaching you solutions to help them find success in the future.
- Model good time management practices.
- Have patience! Everyone experiences triumphs, setbacks, mistakes, and accomplishments, whether they struggle with learning or not. Patience is a hard skill to practice. But, it is the key to any learning process. Children learn from their mistakes if we teach them to. Help your child identify their flaws and have the patience to teach them how to build from their mistakes.
Remember, learning is a process. We all go through the process at our own pace. Even if your child displays weaknesses in their executive functioning skills, they are on the journey to building those skills. Understand that it is their journey and they will get there at a pace that fits their learning style. When you arm yourself with strategies to help them along the way, they will be that much more successful in their journey.