Executive Functioning: Why Can’t My Child Get Ready For School?

The Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes executive function and self-regulation skills as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” We use these skills every day at home, school, work, and in the community. Executive functioning requires the ability to take time to think before acting, stay focused, use mental flexibility with new ideas, tolerate unexpected changes, remember information, and organize our self and our environment.

Challenges with executive functioning can be seen in children with a diagnosis of sensory integration dysfunction, ADHD, and learning disabilities. As a parent, we may see this with our child struggling to remember and carry out directions, difficulty following a schedule and figuring out where they should be, disorganization with remembering when an assignment is due, and losing assignments that may or may not be completed. In addition, the parent may see poor ability to change perspective, rigidity in thinking or movement, difficulty with doing a task such as math in their head, acting without thinking—which can cause behaviors with others, challenges with emotional outbursts when overwhelmed, and poor self-regulation and working/moving too fast, or taking too long to complete a task. Telling a story or remembering what happened during the day, poor initiation of how to start a task, and difficulty with changing plans or getting new information may impact your child’s success during the day.

Here are some ideas to manage life with your child now, as well as provide tools for future success:

Working Memory: Make a list or notes with important information needed for the task or for the day. Practice self-talking, ask for written directions from teachers, use visual imagery to portray what has happened in this situation or what could happen. Put objects in the same place every time and take advantage of routines. Ask your child to repeat directions.

Cognitive Flexibility: Provide cues before or during the task. Forewarn and develop strategies for changes in schedules or information. Play familiar games using different rules and teach flexible thinking with alternative ways to do a task.

Planning and Organization: Teach your child how to make and use a checklist. Use color coding for assignments or due dates and teach how to break a project down into manageable parts. Make a step-by-step plan for a task or activity, providing visual and verbal prompts as needed. A checklist can be simple—such as items to bring to school every day—or it can be a detailed step-by-step process for something as complex as a science fair project. Explore using time managers such as age-appropriate organizers or watches with alarms to stay on track or finish on time. Teach your child how to stop and check the progress of the activity. Schedule time to organize the workspace or have different workspaces for different tasks. Provide additional time for planning, organizing, and execution of the task. Try not to rush your child. Model and practice how to start a new task and take the first step.

Self-Regulation: Teach awareness if the child’s activity level matches the task or setting, and if not, how to change the activity level. Explore using hand fidgets, alternative seating, and quiet spaces when overwhelmed by noise. Try noise canceling headphones to block out distractions. Use first/then statements such as first use the toilet, then get in the shower. Provide quiet time during the day for emotional recovery where the child can read, color, or play with toys. Encourage movement opportunities before sit-down time

Inhibition: Help your child learn how to stop an activity without stress or behaviors. Play “freeze” games to take a deep breath or mentally shift before moving to a different challenge. You can practice waiting before acting or reacting. Practice ‘go with the flow’ on calm days.

Occupational therapy focusing on sensory integration can help address executive functioning challenges. Contact LifeScape to learn more: (605) 444-9700 or email info@LifeScapeSD.org