How to Boost Executive Functioning Skills from Home

Key takeaways: Distance learning may heighten executive functioning challenges already experienced by kids with ADHD, autism, and other learning disabilities. While each child’s needs are different, there are some ways you can help your kiddo navigate distance learning more easily:

  • Provide structure in a physical environment
  • Create a physical daily schedule with your child’s input and participation
  • Use social stories to help your child stay on task and improve their memory
  • Hang a reward chart near their workstation
  • Combine your child’s tasks with motions (like counting on fingers or writing with chalk)
  • Speak to your child’s teacher about adjusting formats for reading and writing assignments

Executive functioning is a term we often hear when discussing our kids’ academic progress, but these cognitive processes are not limited to children in school. During stressful times like the COVID-19 pandemic, people of all ages — including parents — will find their executive functioning impacted, whether we’re forgetting appointments, struggling to complete work tasks quickly, and more. Kids with ADHD, autism, and other learning disabilities who experienced executive functioning challenges before the pandemic may have had difficulty navigating different assignments, retaining information their teacher shared during a lesson, and effectively managing their time while completing independent work. When you add distance learning to the equation, executive functioning challenges can be heightened.

So what exactly is executive function? According to a paper written for the National Center for Education Research, “executive function skills are the attention-regulation skills that make it possible to sustain attention, keep goals and information in mind, refrain from responding immediately, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, consider the consequences of different behaviors, reflect on past experiences, and plan for the future.” These skills originate in the prefrontal cortex of the brain — so in addition to children with neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disabilities, children with brain injuries can also struggle with executive function. 

We recently spoke with educational therapist Marcy Dann, M.A., BCET, FAET, of Bridges Academy to learn more about executive functioning, and to find out how we can better support our children’s executive functioning skills from home.

Child wearing a long-sleeve pink shirt drawing with chalk on concrete
Child wearing a long-sleeve pink shirt drawing with chalk on concrete


How does distance learning impact executive functioning?

  • Children who struggle with executive functioning have difficulty following directions — so Dann tells us that in order to best support our kids, it’s important to first understand how exactly they’re experiencing this issue. Find out which of these is most relevant for your child, and go from there:
    • Struggling to follow auditory directions
    • Difficulty visually scanning
    • Only being able to pay attention to what’s happening visually and auditorily in the moment, then having difficulty with active working memory to continue the assignment later.
       
  • Dann explains that in an in-person classroom environment, “teachers prompt students who have weaker executive functioning skills to do whatever’s next” — whether that’s an assignment, a group activity, etc. She continues, “In a physical environment, the teacher has that kind of awareness and control to provide prompts to the students who need it because the cues are obvious. Online, I don’t think that those cues are as clear for the teacher.”
     
  • Students who typically need the most assistance with executive functioning may not be aware of their needs, or they may not yet be able to self-advocate. Dann explains that over Zoom or another distance learning platform, there may be a lack of communication between student and teacher. “But just because it can be harder to do online, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Dann says. You may need to have some additional conversations about your Distance Learning Plan with your IEP team to ensure your child gets the help they need.
     
  • If a student is no longer sharing a physical environment with their teacher, whose job is it to prompt the student during distance learning? The parents! Dann empathizes with how complicated this situation can be: “Parents have more emotional reactions to their children’s frustration levels, and the parents themselves may be multitasking, so it’s an entirely stressed dynamic. You’re asking parents to suddenly have teaching abilities and to not have any emotions attached to teaching their child.”

So how can we help make distance learning more manageable for our children?

In a recent article from ADDitude Magazine, Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, discussed executive functioning, teaching your child independence, and the fine line between hovering too much over your child’s work and not prompting them enough. Dann elaborates on the article by explaining that parents may encounter these difficulties when their child is not yet autonomous, and that encouraging their child to focus becomes an emotional event for them. “If a parent prompts their child and they begin to fight, then that child develops new brain waves relating to this kind of tension with their parent,” Dann says. “Their child then may prioritize doing what they can to avoid that tension,” rather than prioritizing their schoolwork. By managing your expectations of your child so they’re not too low or too high, you can help mitigate these emotional reactions. 

In addition to managing our expectations, what are concrete steps we can take to help our kids navigate their curriculum and class time more easily? 

Dann emphasizes that each situation is unique. “There is no one bulletpoint that will work for all families. Parents have to decide what is best for their family and for each child in the household.” That being said, there are some ways you can start figuring out what is most helpful for you and your kiddo:

  • “The best way to deal with executive functioning challenges is to provide structure in a physical environment,” Dann says. “Make sure students are emotionally safe to ask questions, which may not be the case if parents are around.” That can mean leaving the room if your child is speaking with their teacher over Zoom. 
     
  • “Create a physical daily schedule with your child’s participation, and include their school schedule, meal times, relaxation, and things your child is looking forward to,” Dann says. This can be in writing or, if your child is a pre-reader, using symbols or pictures of the teachers and therapists on the schedule. Post the schedule someplace visible, such as near their work station — but make sure you ask your child to choose the location. This is an opportunity to have your child participate in choice. Ask them if there should be multiple copies, whether they’d like it to be shared with other family members or kept private, etc.
     
  • Dann adds that it’s important to keep timing in mind. If you recently had an emotional response to your child, you should wait to create the schedule when you’re both calm. And remember that your child will need prompts to look at and follow the schedule.
     
  • For kids who are not yet reading, using social stories — similar to self-talk — can help reduce a child’s anxiety and keep them on task. Child Mind Institute explains how we can use social stories as “narratives about a child successfully performing a certain task or learning a particular skill.” You can start by asking your child to describe themselves executing an activity from their first-person perspective before they begin working on it. Creating a social story together has an added bonus for kids who can’t yet read schedules because the self-talk can work as a checklist to “break tasks into clear steps [that] can be referred to later.” Check out these great social stories about distance learning!
     
  • You can also include a reward chart near your child’s schedule, which is especially effective for younger kids. Keep a list of their tasks near their workstation, and put a gold star sticker (or any symbol of your child’s choosing) next to the listed tasks once completed. Stickers or any kind of reward will help motivate your child to complete assignments.
     
  • For some children who are tactile and/or visual learners, combining their tasks with a motion can help improve their memory (also known as “kinesthetic recall”) and their ability to focus. This can be something as simple as counting on fingers, or something more creative: 
    • For example, asking your child to divide a pile of mini M&Ms among family members and then answer an equation on paper can help them learn division.
    • When your child is learning their multiplication tables, your child can pull out two cards from a deck, then multiply the numbers on the cards together.
    • Kinesthetic or tactile learning activities are not limited to math, either! You can use games to teach spelling, history, language arts, and more. (For reading, ask your child to practice spelling a word by writing it on the driveway in chalk, tracing it over a tactile service (such as a LEGO baseplate), or writing it in the air with their index finger — these last two examples are used by the Orton-Gillingham method and can be very effective at teaching children how to read.)
       
  • Speaking with your child’s teacher about adjusting assignments is another helpful option. Reading and writing can present unique challenges for students struggling with executive function, so instead of writing an essay, ask the teacher if your child can submit a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation on the same topic. Rather than read an entire assigned novel, ask if your child can have access to an audiobook version. 

Dann also suggests that parents look over these two online resources:

  • In ADDitude Magazine’s “Zoom Can’t Show You How Hard It Is to Learn This Way,” an adult with ADD writes to a teacher from the perspective of an 8-year-old student with disabilities during the pandemic. Some of the tips he covers are scheduling your child’s 1:1 meetings with their teacher later in the day, asking the teacher to be aware of their movements on camera, adjusting the volume of virtual lessons, and more.
     
  • In ADDitude Magazine’s “Learn Right Now! 8 Secrets to Engaged Online Learning for Students with ADHD,” Ezra Werb, M.Ed, suggests some of the tips we mentioned earlier (such as making lessons physical with things like mini M&Ms and using audiobook versions of required reading when possible), as well as placing a visible timer near your child while they work, asking your child to draw or doodle their ideas and thoughts, and more.

While distance learning and other stresses certainly don’t make executive functioning any easier, boosting your child’s skills at home is both possible and fun with some creativity, support, and patience. Each child’s needs are different, so try out a few of these tips and let us know what ends up working best for you and your family!

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