Ways to Help Executive Function Disorders and Kids

Would you embark on a journey without a map? How would you get there, or what is the best route? For kids with executive function (EF) issues, every day is a journey without a working GPS. Learn about ways to help executive function disorders in kids and guide them through life’s challenges.

The term “executive function” refers to processes that control and regulate other skills and behaviors in an emerging theory. Learn how EF affects children with other special needs, such as ADHD and dyslexia, and what parents can do to help.

The importance of EF:

“Executive functions are critical for academic success,” according to Chris A. Zeigler Dendy. Her youngest, struggled with ADHD and EF issues in high school and college. “Executive function deficits significantly impact academic success and explain why so many ADHD students struggle in school.”

Goal-directed behavior requires EF skills. EF actions have four key characteristics, according to Martha Denckla, a cognitive neurology specialist: initiate, sustain, inhibit, shift, or ISIS.

Your child may have difficulties with EF if she has difficulty with tasks like planning projects, memorizing information, coming up with ideas independently, and retaining information while using it.

Other signs may include misbehavior or difficulty adapting or focusing on tasks. EF disorders are more prevalent among children with learning disabilities.

How it affects children:

“Our children appear to be less mature and responsible than their peers,” says Dendy. There needs to be a higher level of monitoring and supervision than is typical for (their) age group on the part of parents and teachers.

“An open-ended task is too much for these children,” says Ann L. Beatty, director of the Michigan Dyslexia Institute-Detroit Metro Center. They freeze when faced with starting or initiating tasks, whether it is cleaning their room or a homework assignment.

Once a task has begun, children struggle to maintain their attention for the duration of the task. They run out of gas faster, implying that they will start well but finish poorly, given their other abilities.

On the other hand, the child may become completely absorbed in activities that he finds personally interesting or rewarding, to the exclusion of all else. “It’s almost as if they’re in a silence cone,” Beatty observes.

Another EF feature is a problem inhibiting or not paying attention to distractions. According to Beatty, these can be external (phone ringing) or internal (reading a paragraph that reminds a child of a similar experience). These kids are often very creative, but it’s difficult for them to be creative when they’re just trying to finish an assignment.

According to Beatty, when a task is completed, people with EF may have difficulty “wiping the slate clean” and moving on to the next task. “These kids dislike disruptions in their routine and struggle with unexpected changes.”

Ways to assist:

Beatty suggests breaking down a task into smaller parts and giving the child clear, specific instructions to complete each part. “You must demonstrate how to eat the elephant one bite at a time,” she says.

Understanding a child’s personality is also essential. “Some kids will do better if they power through tasks and finish,” says Lori Warner, director of the HOPE Program at Beaumont Hospital Center for Human Development. “Others must take a break before returning to the task.” It may be difficult at first, but “with practice, they get better.”

Beatty and Warner both recommend tools like planners, timers, and visual mapping. “Listening can be challenging,” Warner admits. A child may be able to see the situation more clearly after mapping out a task. Beatty adds that children with EF problems should be taught how to use an organizer.

Consider the following additional National Center for Learning Disabilities recommendations:

  • Take a methodical approach to your work.
  • Use visual organizational tools.
  • Use tools such as timers, computers, and alarm clocks.
  • Make visual schedules and go over them several times per day.
  • When possible, request written directions in addition to oral instructions.
  • Plan and structure transition times and activity shifts.
  • Make checklists and to-do lists, and estimate how long each task will take.
  • Always put the due date at the top of your assignments.
  • Make your child’s workspace more organized.
  • Reduce clutter.

Set aside time each week to clean and organize your workspace.

If a parent suspects that a child has EF issues, Warner suggests that close communication between home and school be maintained to identify problems. “Have your child evaluated by several professionals,” she suggests. A clearer picture of your child’s strengths and weaknesses can emerge with input from various sources. Experts agree that an individualized approach is critical.

Remember that the brain continues to mature and develop connections well into adulthood, and both physical brain changes and life experiences shape EF abilities. Early intervention can have a significant impact.

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