March Madness is around the corner: a time of anticipation and excitement for college basketball fans around the globe. Many students, however, especially those with learning and attention differences, are experiencing another form of madness altogether: midterms, projects, deadlines and a pressure to succeed. In a recent study, 45% of teens reported feeling stressed “all the time.” Many parents feel helpless as they wonder how best to help their kids stay afloat.
For many students, executive function (EF) weaknesses are at the core of learning challenges and academic stress. EF skills are the neurologically based cognitive processes that enable us to do a myriad of tasks including planning, organizing, remembering instructions, and multi-tasking. Simply put, EF skills allow us get things done in an efficient and effective way.
The research around EF strategies is vast and the resources can be overwhelming, but in my more than 15 years of experience working with children and families, I’ve found a few core concepts reign supreme:
Students with EF weaknesses have difficulty organizing novel information and tend to be more dysregulated, both emotionally and behaviorally. Creating consistency is key so that these students don’t have to perpetually organize and adapt to new information. Schedules and routines help ensure that each day does not seem like a brand new venture. Predictability reduces the EF demands and the likelihood of dysregulation, as it helps to outline what to expect each day and segment of the day (e.g., morning, after-school, evening). Since individuals with EF challenges do not easily retain this information, routines will need to be reiterated for weeks, months, or even longer. It may start to feel like Groundhog Day: every morning you wake up hoping that your child will be able to get through the day independently, but instead you’re faced with the same reality—endless reminders, checklists and frustration. Since it is a marathon, not a sprint, choose routines and schedules that you can maintain for the long haul.
In order to reinforce positive behavior, we as adults need to stay consistent and calm. Adults are potent role models as students learn how to manage themselves and their emotions. Because EF skills are “higher order cognitive skills,” they can’t be accessed in a heightened emotional state. This is as true for us as it is for our kids. We’ve all been there: when we’re feeling frustrated or at our wit’s end, we can’t access our own EF processes, let alone guide our children’s. Consistently model appropriate self-regulation strategies—take a few moments away, turn on your happy music, draw, do something creative or get a breath of fresh air outside.
Students with EF challenges have difficulty making connections in the information they are learning and linking past experiences to the present time. The connections that can seem obvious to us are not so for these students—they need help seeing the “big picture.” Explicitly discuss why Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are connected and part of the same civil rights movement. Brainstorm ways that a series of short stories are related. If they can’t come up with anything, provide increasing levels of scaffolding until they get there (e.g., did you notice anything in common with the main characters? Were the writing styles similar or different?”) Tie lessons to salient and real world experiences (e.g., family travels, sports statistics) to help reinforce learning. Study guides such as CliffsNotes and SparkNotes before reading the full text can be useful tools for learners who have difficulty organizing information and finding through lines.
In order for a student to accept the EF support they need, there needs to be a positive connection with the agent of change (e.g., parent, tutor, teacher). Having EF challenges is frustrating and accommodation strategies can be exhausting. Students need to feel supported, hopeful and empowered to learn the skills that will eventually help them succeed. There is a saying among educators that rings true for us as parents and clinicians as well: “Kids don’t care what you know until they know you care.” The quality of your relationship with your child is more important than being their EF taskmaster: know when to step back and get help from someone outside the home. At the end of the day, your child wants to come home to a parent and not a coach.