“Johnny! How many times do I have to tell you to finish your homework before you go outside to play?!” “Sarah, how do you expect to get your book report done on time if it’s due tomorrow and you haven’t even started it yet?” “David – your teacher is telling me that you haven’t been turning in your homework assignments...”
Do any of these sound like familiar expressions that commonly ring through your household? Is your child having problems managing the demands of ever increasingly difficult classes and homework assignments? If so, then your child may be struggling with a set of skills referred to as “executive functioning.”
What is executive functioning? Executive functioning is a set of mental, or cognitive, skills that are coordinated in the brain's frontal lobe regions and associated neural networks. These skills typically develop during adolescence. In younger children, executive functioning issues may look like problems with focusing on school work, following instructions, complying with adult directives, hyperactive and impulsive behavior, irritability and poor frustration tolerance, and difficulty maintaining peer relationships. In older children and teens, executive functioning difficulties affect one's ability to plan for large projects, organize materials, multi-task in the classroom or during homework, figure out ways to solve problems, focus on and complete assignments, and manage time effectively (Gioia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 2000). These difficulties result in becoming easily overwhelmed by life's daily tasks and challenges and an overall feeling of distress and failure. This can also be very frustrating for parents and teachers dealing with a child or student with executive difficulties. Executive functioning is thought to play a fundamental role in the cognitive and behavioral difficulties of individuals with ADHD. However, many individuals who do not have ADHD may have challenges with executive functioning skills.
What are common problems seen in children with executive functioning difficulties? Executive functioning can be thought of simply as self-regulation, or self-directed actions that are needed to choose goals and to achieve them (Barkley, 2012). For school-aged children, problems with choosing goals and behaving in ways to achieve them are most apparent in their academics, including homework. Parents and teachers frequently complain of their child or student having a hard time focusing on their homework and being easily distracted; reading a passage but not being able to answer questions about what they have read; always leaving large projects for the “last minute”; forgetting to turn in homework assignments or bring home necessary books and other materials; or having a hard time shifting focus from a math assignment to a reading project. Problems can be more “behavioral,” such as with a child who can’t seem to sit still and finish his homework assignment; or, they can be more “cognitive,” such as with a student who has a hard time planning and problem-solving how to approach a large and complex project that is due in a couple months.
How to help your child or student with executive functioning difficulties. So now what? Now that we know what the problem is, how do I help my child fix it? Because children with weaker executive functioning skills are unable to control their goal-directed actions as well as others, interventions for executive functioning must start with more external prompts and supports until these skills are increasingly internalized by the child and used more independently over time (Barkley, 2012).
The following are some recommendations to help your child or student with executive functioning difficulties as they may impact their academics. The interventions are grouped into “clusters” of executive functions as commonly defined in the literature (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2008; Gioia et al., 2000).
• Provide external structure for children with impulse control difficulties by teaching rules and providing expectations surrounding their homework. For example, explain to your child that her homework must be completed by 6pm if she wants to be able to play a computer game. Setting up the rules and expectations ahead of time, in addition to providing opportunities to earn privileges will increase focused behavior and avoid impulsive tendencies to be distracted or find ways out of doing the homework.
• Prompt your child to review his or her homework once it is completed. This will help your child catch and correct careless mistakes that may have been made.
• If you know an assignment will be difficult for your child, preview the homework with him and encourage him to try his best even though you know if will be difficult for him. Praise your child’s efforts as he sticks with the difficult task.
• Encourage your child to use her favorite colored highlighter to highlight important words in the directions for an assignment. Before she starts the assignment, review the highlighting to be sure she has done this correctly.
Mental Flexibility and Initiating
• Provide a visual checklist or schedule for your child that includes all homework assignments for the day; this could include pictures for younger children. Older children could create their own written checklist. Encourage your child to cross out each task once it is complete.
• Use a timer to signal to your child when computer, TV, or playtime is over and it is time to start homework. Having a concrete and visible/audible way to track time and know when it is time to stop leisure activity and begin work may help your child transition more smoothly to homework than you repeatedly telling him to.
• Develop schedules and routines around homework as well as all daily tasks and activities. For example, there should be a consistent time for after-school snack, homework, dinner, leisure time, and bedtime. Visual schedules could be used to help remind your child when it is time for a given activity or task.
• Your child should complete only one task at a time, before moving on to the next task. This will reduce demands on working memory and result in more efficient task completion.
• Break multi-step instructions into individual components (single steps). For example, instead of telling your child to go to his desk, pull out his math book, and turn to the assigned homework page, give him each of these steps one by one and praise him for completion of each small step.
• Making step-by-step cards with details of important facts may be helpful. Prompt cards could be used as a cueing system for your child so that he does not forget important aspects of what is to be done. He can also use these cards as “recipes” for how to do certain multi-step problems before it is fully memorized.
• Provide guided previewing of important “anchor” points for assignment content. Reviewing the main ideas, concepts, or new words in the lesson with your child before beginning the assignment may help ensure that he grasps the main points of the assignment. Similarly, encourage your child to review the “highlights” or summary of the previous chapter or lesson to refresh his memory and help tie the previous information to the current one.
• During reading assignments, encourage your child to highlight the most important aspects of each paragraph, including the topic sentence (main idea), and any important supporting details. This should help your child “remember” the important information, which will help improve comprehension.
• It may be helpful to “prime” your child for homework assignments prior to beginning them. This will involve creating the proper atmosphere for focused work, including a quiet, structured environment with reduced distractions. Research has shown that slow-paced activities, such as educational television programs or drawing, may enhance performance on academic tasks (Lillard & Peterson, 2011). Your child may benefit from engaging in such activities, such as drawing or painting, immediately before working on assignments (approximately 10 minutes).
• For children who have difficulty turning in their homework assignments, have a “homework” folder that is organized by subject. Also, smart phones or planners can be used to jot down a reminder to “turn in homework.” If possible, encourage your child to email a copy of a printed assignment to her teacher, in case the original is misplaced.
• Break down large assignments, projects, or studying for cumulative tests into component parts, and provide a checklist for each component. Work with your child to create a very specific list of daily steps needed to complete the project, and enter these into a calendar or planner as homework. Encourage your child to have a “planning day” prior to starting the project to lay out the steps, decide what materials are needed, and develop a timeline.
• Visual organizers may be helpful for planning and organizing a complex written assignment such as an essay or book report. These can be created or templates could be found online. Visual organizers help your child brainstorm ideas and outline the structure of the written assignment, which may help children who become easily overwhelmed by large assignments.