Which Ten Executive Function Interventions Should Parents Try at Home? Claire Needell Hollander

Executive function is beyond the buzzword stage—It’s become the way of describing children who appear to be underperforming in school, but who do not have a discrete, diagnosed learning disability. There are private companies who train executive function coaches in week-long workshops, even if coaches have no classroom teaching experience, or training in a related field. There are multiple games developed by scientists and being marketed to improve focus and stamina in children with diagnoses of ADHD and Executive Function deficits. It all sounds very technical, professional and, well, like we can fix Executive Function deficits with specific trademarked, commercialized products.
Well, not so much. As my colleagues and I remind ourselves daily, there’s a reason they’re called kids…and all kids are cognitively different both from each other and from adults. Executive function is a grab-bag descriptor of the various functions “executed” in the pre-frontal cortex. These include: impulse inhibition, task initiation, working memory, cognitive flexibility, focus and organizational skills. Executive function deficits are sometimes heritable, are always a matter of maturity, and are also affected by fatigue, stress, emotional state and hunger. Reliable strategies for improving Executive Function skills are in huge demand and the marketplace is getting crowded. But sadly there is little evidence that the current gains in understanding brain function have direct implications for “educational delivery.” (Educational Neuroscience, Wiley Blackwell)
So, what’s a teacher, tutor, coach or parent to do? While I can’t claim to “fix” a child’s Executive Function issues, I can say that experienced, well-trained, reflective practitioners, who keep up on the research, can help children improve their school performance. Parents can too. Here are some methods which have positive results in classroom engagement and task completion:

Validate: We know what it’s like to be given a seemingly impossible task. When your child cries when he does his homework, when he becomes hopeless and helpless, the feeling is contagious. We feel hopeless and helpless as well—and that feeling can turn to anger. Break this cycle by validating his frustration. Say, yes, you realize math is difficult and his teacher might be a weirdo. He still needs to try his best, but first he needs to take a breather, dry his eyes, and have a glass of water (and maybe a cookie).
Differentiate: Help your child learn to distinguish between types of tasks: memorization tasks can take a lot of energy and should be prioritized. Multi-step projects need to be planned out, even when teachers do not provide a planning template. Planning templates can be found on-line or through a tutor or coach.
Create a fail-safe environment. Yes, your child should be able to keep track of her chargers, pens, pencils and folder. Yes, she knows where her eyeliner is at all times. Still, the problem is real. She has nothing to write with and this wastes precious time and energy—have charger, paper, a working printer, mechanical pencils, and extra folders around the house.
Praise—Go positive. “Wow, great, you did your art project during your free period,” will go down a lot better than “You are spending way too much time on nonacademic stuff.” Doing pleasurable activities actually primes the brain well for moving onto more aversive or challenging work.
Model good coping mechanisms. Notice if you vent when frustrated or give up easily on unpleasant tasks in front of your child. We all do this sometimes, but venting frustration as a habit can cost a student (or adult) a lot of much-needed energy. Next time you break a wineglass, do the silent screaming thing, then calmly find the broom and dustpan and show her what perseverance looks like.
Redirect a distracted kid, but do so kindly. When we treat a distracted student harshly, we’ve added to his cognitive load. He now feels annoyed/humiliated in addition to his frustration or fatigue. Say, “Hmmm, are those Pokemon cards part of a school assignment?” not “I am going to flush these damn things down the toilet next time I see them.”
Ask/don’t tell- when a child is frustrated, lost, unfocused, ask what’s up rather than lecture them on what they are not doing. They know already! But they may have some important information on how they are thinking. Sometimes, kids day-dream while they are reading, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a character or to live in a certain time period. This is age-appropriate, even for teens. Such dreaminess is not time-effective, but it can feed creativity.
Help with task-comprehension, but not with task-fulfillment. Often kids over-react when they see a new word in an essay question or if a page of homework looks unfamiliar in format. Model how to engage with a novel task/concept. Read the task aloud and ask which parts are difficult to understand, but then let your child muddle along in completing the assignment. It can be frustrating, even saddening, to watch a child struggle, but learning to struggle is essential. School assignments today are often more complex than assignments we may have gotten as students. Open-ended, thought-provoking, complex questions prepare middle schoolers for high school and high schoolers for college. These assignments are supposed to be challenging.
Use timers and short breaks to help your child focus. Many kids rush through assignments while others drag out work, so that a task that should take half an hour takes an hour instead. When they see how time-effective focused attention can be, kids are often delighted! Don’t take this from them by keeping them busy with chores or music practice. Let them taste the freedom! For the rushers—the timer demonstrates how much time they should actually be investing in their work. They may recognize that when they read for thirty minutes straight, not ten, they can keep up with the pace set by the teacher.
Listen to failure—Be a listener when your child fails, not a lecturer (or at least wait to lecture). Ask how he feels about his low performance on his math test and ask how he would like to problem-solve. When your child believes he has been given agency, he will focus better and be more self-motivated. He may not suddenly become an A student, but self-control must be experienced to be improved upon!

Kid-Made Solutions

kid made 1

I love this example of a kid-made study solution!

A high school sophomore copes with learning Chinese vocab by creating a weekly study guide she inserts into her pencil case.  Every time she needs a writing implement, she’s glancing at the week’s vocabulary and English translations.

The take-away: In a complex educational environment in which students are learning in a variety of modalities throughout the day, creative problem-solving beats a one-design fits all approach.  Organizational/Executive Function Coaches sometimes get rigid about methods and like to “kid-proof” their designs.  We do not like clutter, or multi-use objects –like a pencil case that is also a study-tool.  But organizational strategies must intersect with the improvisational nature of active learning.  Think pre-school classroom and all those objects that are labeled, so children engage with print as they gather materials throughout the day!  Great students learn to improvise strategically and keep their study needs foremost in their minds.  Cognitive flexibility and functional independence are always goals for executive function coaching.  Modeling techniques for meeting personal learning goals is a great way to help kids learn to help themselves.

Are You Even Getting Anything Done? Teaching Time-management skills through mentalization of focus, stamina and task difficulty.

Your kid says she’s been working on her homework for hours, but what you’ve seen is nothing like focused attention—she’s doodled, eaten, texted, taken selfies, played with the dog and finally, groaned, stomped and cursed her way through a grueling half-hour of math. The saddest part of the spectacle is math is her best subject. On a good day, you open a book and steer clear of argument. On a bad day, you say something like, if you’d just focus, you’d be in honor’s classes like all your friends.
For many kids, sitting still just isn’t easy. Plowing through two hours of homework on a nightly basis feel nightmarish to her, and you get sucked into the bad dream. Increasing efficiency and focus in a student who is struggling may require some professional help. But whether you hire a coach, a subject area tutor, or get your child help at his public school, there are some basics when it comes to increasing focus and stamina in a child who struggles. It is best when a parent understands these approaches:

1) Increase awareness of time on and time off task
Use of a timer. Introduce timer-use initially for short bursts, like sprints. This allows students to see how much they can accomplish in just eight to ten minutes of focused work. Gradually, increase the time to twenty minutes and on from there. Most students can, with the help of a timer, stay focused for short bursts. When working for only ten minutes straight, take very short breaks of only a minute or two. Use the timed-session to build in useful break-periods. Often kids take breaks only once they have exhausted themselves sitting at their desks for long periods of time, without working effectively. Or, when on break, lose track of time completely. A break should never be more than about a quarter of the period worked and need not be introduced until at least twenty minutes is up. (During short, timed bursts, don’t break for cookies or a walk, simply review what has been accomplished, then set the timer again.) Most kids will be shocked by what they can accomplish in ten minutes of straight work. They will be empowered by this. Twenty minutes may be too challenging at first and you may not get the same “wow” reaction from the student if he struggles to get through the full twenty minutes.

2) Mentalizing: Introduce the idea of ‘pre-work’ and try some ‘pre-work’ exercises. Pre-work is any kind of mentalizing about the tasks ahead. Have students rate homework assignments as easy/medium/hard when they record tasks during class. This will help in prioritizing the work later. Older students can classify their homework tasks as “memorizing,” “research/gathering information,” “analyzing information,” “practicing a new skill,” “being creative.” Labeling the type of work necessary helps in prioritizing tasks and in strategizing.
Once a student knows how to classify her work, she can qualify her own reactions/attitudes toward different types of tasks. Memorization tasks are boring to some students, while other students find rote memorization fun, like playing a game, while they avoid analyzing and synthesizing tasks. Thinking about categories of work, rather than just what subject the work is for, helps students accurately estimate the time and energy a particular assignment may require.
Parents can gain insight into which types of tasks their kids find troublesome by looking at the child’s report card. We tend to think of kids who do poorly at foreign language as kids who lack language facility. But foreign language, at the lower levels, involves a great deal of rote memorization. Math and science at the 6-12th grade level, on the other hand, tends to involve more skills-acquisition than history and English, which present the greatest difficulty when receptive and expressive language are a challenge—keep in mind the distinction here, as many kids who have excellent comprehension (receptive) skills struggle with expressive language—producing her own thoughts in writing/answering questions orally when called on. If your child reads well and writes slowly, this means her expressive language skills are not on par with her receptive language skills and she needs support in this area.
Thinking about the types of work involved in each subject area helps students to think differently about their capabilities. Your daughter may say she is “bad at science,” when what is difficult about science for her is how much new information she must consistently absorb. The kids she thinks are “talented” in this area may simply spend more time on it. When students are invited to consider the difficulty level inherent in the tasks they have ahead of them, they are less likely to blame themselves for their struggle and more likely to put more effort into the work.

3) Change the self-talk: Finding something difficult is not the same as being bad at something. Increase awareness of types of struggle and challenge and the language kids use to describe their experience with work. As with physical exercise, not everyone begins at the same level. Discussing work challenges in task-specific/process-specfic ways helps move students away from black and white thinking. “I hate math” can be transformed into insightful thinking like“learning complicated, new skills makes me anxious.”
Struggling to complete an assignment is an aversive experience. Struggling while we say, this kind of thing is hard for me, maybe there are some ways I can get better at it so it won’t be so difficult is very different from struggling and saying to ourselves this is impossible, I hate this, I’m a terrible student. If you have any doubt, try it at the gym. Positive, reality-based self talk keeps the brain engaged and working.

4) Identify and celebrate task-specific strength areas, not just ‘favorite subjects.”
Kids tend to think of themselves as good or bad in certain academic subject areas. While this may be an observable fact, it is also true that many skill sets are important across the subject areas— research, creative thinking and meticulous, detail-oriented planning can be useful in any academic subject. Unfortunately, when kids decide “I’m not good at science, I’m good at English,” they do not fully engage the skills they have the most confidence in when working in the problem subject. So, the good English student reads the science text book poorly. If we say to a student, “Wow, you can really take good notes. You know a lot about reading for information,” we validate their ability to do well in any academic area. Students can compensate for some of their perceived weaknesses by drawing on their perceived academic strengths.

When working with students on the multifaceted skill of mentalizing, we always take things slow. Begin with the concrete. Stay with one area over many weeks. If a student has difficulty with a concept, back off and try a different approach or catch phrase. There are many ways to mentalize on focus, time-management and stamina and no correct terminology. The language should be accessible and meaningful to the student.