Let’s talk about executive functioning.  This seems to be a hot topic-especially in the special ed world.  I can’t tell you how many PDs I had to attend on executive functioning-and for good reason.  Without executive functioning, we aren’t getting anything done! 

Executive functioning can be defined as “a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things.” -Understood.org (link at bottom). 

Let me give you a few examples of struggling with executive functioning that I have experienced aka parent brain. 

-I put the wet clothes into the dryer, but forget to start the dryer. I come back to switch a load, just to find I now have 2 loads of wet clothes.

-My preschooler asks me the same question 5 times, but I still don’t know what she is asking because my brain is trying to figure out dinner.

-I rush upstairs, get to the bedroom, just to forget what I’m up there for. 

-I do the dishes but don’t start the dishwasher.

-I plan to mail a package, but I forget the package on my way out the door. 

-I don’t finish cleaning the kitchen because I get distracted by the kids, the mess in another room, the doorbell rings, etc.  It is so rare for me to actually complete a task.  Right now the kitchen is half clean because I switched gears to write! 

You get the idea! Parent brain aka a struggle in executive functioning happens to me on the regular, and it sucks! I feel incapable, inadequate, and like my brain doesn’t work! I often say that I’m waiting for my brain to “work” again.  

Likewise, our children who struggle with getting things done probably feel similar. It doesn’t help that we (parents and teachers) nag at them for their lack of executive functioning skills.  Struggle in executive functioning in children may look like:

-Takes 10 years to get their shoes on.  They finally get one on, you turn around and they are doing something else- one shoe on, the other one?? 

-They struggle with keeping their things organized.  Everything just seems a mess. 

-Their brain wonders (remember me and trying to figure out dinner), your child might be distracted by thoughts about soccer practice, the video game they were playing, anxiety about a class coming up, lunch-what’s for lunch? Will I have someone to sit with? Will that one lady yell at me again?

-Bedtime routine? Morning routine? Routines at school? A struggle.  Hello sweet child! We are doing THIS right now!

As teachers and parents, dealing with a lack of executive functioning skills in ourselves and our children is frustrating! We often lose our cool especially after saying “Get your shoes on!” until we are blue in the face.  Instead of living in frustration, let’s make some improvements.  First, approach with empathy.  We have all lacked executive functioning at some point.  Keep in mind that usually your child isn’t trying to ignore you or not follow directions.  Also, executive functioning is a learned and practiced skill.  If your child is younger than six, it is totally normal for them to lack these skills.  It is still frustrating, don’t get me wrong.  But we have to teach the routines, the focus, etc.  

Finally, provide your child with tools to increase their functioning.  Below are a few ways to help children who struggle with executive functioning.  Keep in mind you need to teach them HOW to use the tool.  

-Checklists-can never go wrong with a list! These can be tailored to meet your child’s age and specific tasks.  

-Break routines into smaller steps. 

-Break chores, homework, activities into smaller amounts with breaks.

-Use visuals as reminders (I should have a huge “Start” sign put in my laundry room!)

-Give those verbal reminders, but stay calm. Think of the reminders as a tool to help, not as a repeated direction and thinking why are you trying to make me go crazy? 

Trying to teach executive functioning skills while also keeping your cool is hard work! Attempting these tools and approaching your child with empathy will help.  Hang in there, you got this! And remember you are not alone! 

If you would like to learn more about how to use these strategies at school and at home to specifically meet your child’s needs, send me an email at JLMonteverde@successfulhealthychildren.org

For more information on executive functioning check out:

https://www.understood.org/en/articles/what-is-executive-function

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Jessica is a military spouse and mommy to a few little ones. This phase of life has her at home with her children and bopping around the country/world for her husband's career. Although not in the classroom, special education continues to hold a special place in her heart. She's eager to work with families to become the greatest advocate for their children through collaborative relationships with the IEP team. She knows, as a parent, that days can be tough especially if you are struggling with behaviors at home. Jessica is available virtually or in person (location dependent) to work with you, to provide resources and strategies that align with data from your child's IEP to create better days at home and school!

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