Executive Functioning: The # 1 skill needed at school

child at school

The #1 Skill Children Need to Be Successful

We all want our children to succeed at school.  But that is not always an easy task.  You may wonder, what is the #1 skill needed for my child to succeed at school?  The answer is Executive Functioning.

What does this really mean though?

It’s mentioned a whole lot nowadays, but why?  Is it really important?

Yes, because executive functions comprise the essential self-regulating skills that we all rely on everyday to accomplish just about everything.  Executive functions help us to plan and organize, learn from our mistakes, make decisions, control our emotions and impulsivity, and shift between thoughts and situations.  Kids start their day by relying on executive functions to get dressed for school and rely on it for every other task until bedtime.

Children who have poor executive functioning skills, often times this goes hand in hand with ADHD, can be quite disorganized.  Their backpacks are an explosion of papers.  Their school desks have piles of garbage in and around their desk.  Homework agendas are not filled out.  They take forever getting dressed, and completing one chore can often take a really, really long time.  Long term assignments are left until last minute, as is studying for a big test.

Well there is help.  And many learning specialists have devised strategies that can help students with poor executive functioning.  Improving organization skills can be achieved through specific strategies and alternate learning styles.

Here are some skills to help students, and parents, get that homework done as well as some other tasks around the house!

Checklists

The steps necessary for completing a task are often not obvious to kids with executive dysfunction.  Defining them clearly ahead of time makes a task less daunting and more achievable. Following a checklist  also minimizes the mental and emotional strain many kids with executive dysfunction experience while trying to make decisions.

With a checklist, kids can focus their mental energy on the task at hand.

You can make a checklist for nearly anything.  For example, posting a checklist of the morning routine can be a sanity saver: make your bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, have breakfast, grab your lunch, get your backpack.  Click MORNING ROUTINE task cards to grab a free copy of a morning checklist.

Set time limits

When making a checklist, many experts recommend assigning a time limit for each step, particularly if it is a bigger, longer-term project.  Talking about the steps to create a poster timeline project for example, requires research, finding pictures, gathering materials, creating a rough draft, and the final draft.  Discussing the time needed for each part can help the student see the bigger picture.

Use that planner

It is crucial that students learn to use a planner.  Most schools require students to use a planner these days, but they often don’t teach children how to use them.  It will also not be obvious to a child who is overwhelmed by—or uninterested in—organization and planning. This is a bad combination because kids who struggle with executive functioning issues have poor working memory, which means it is hard for them to remember things like homework assignments. And working memory issues tend to snowball. Fortunately many teachers also use online platforms and their websites to post homework assignments and test dates.  This comes in handy when that planner or agenda comes home blank, again.

Spell out the rationale

While a child is learning new skills, it is essential that he understand the rationale behind them, or things like planning might feel like a waste of time or needless energy drain.  Kids with poor organizational skills often feel pressured by their time commitments and responsibilities.  Explaining the rationale behind a particular strategy makes a child much more likely to commit to doing it.

Explore different ways of learning

Because everyone learns differently, it is good practice to use a variety of strategies to help kids with executive dysfunction understand—and remember—important concepts. Using graphic organizers as a reference for visual learners is one example.

Other kids remember things better if there is a motion supporting it, like counting on their fingers, which is good for visual and tactile learners. Younger children benefit from self-talking to reduce anxiety and Social Stories, which are narratives about a child successfully performing a certain task or learning a particular skill.

Establish a routine

This is particularly important for older kids, who typically struggle more to get started with their homework.  Check my post of the ultimate after school routine for some ideas.

Use rewards

For younger kids, you can try putting a reward system in place.  Something like a star chart, where kids see the connection between practicing their skills and working towards a reward, works very well.

For older kids who aren’t as motivated by things like rewards, parents should still be encouraging.  Parents need to be checking in with older kids.  Ask how things are going or offer help. Tell them you appreciate all the hard work they’re doing. School is really hard for a lot of kids and they should be recognized for their effort.

We use our organizational skills every day in a million ways, and they are essential to our success in school and later as adults. Following these tips should help to put your child on the right track.

OVER TO YOU

Does your child struggle with executive functioning? Do they seem to be unorganized? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!

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