Executive Function Challenges and Strategies to Improve Them – Part 2
As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, executive functions are higher level thinking skills that allow us to appropriately manage our thoughts and behaviors. There are ten executive function skills that are directly related to our ability to self-regulate. In the previous article I covered the functions of planning, organizing, and time management. If you struggle with planning, organizing, and managing your time it will be very difficult to accomplish many of life’s day-to-day tasks efficiently and effectively. But what if you are unable to get started (initiate), can’t remember the steps of the task, or are unable to think about what you are doing in the moment? Difficulty with any one of these things can also lead to major frustration and feelings of failure.
Here are some tips and strategies to improve the executive functions of task initiation, working memory and metacognition:
- Task Initiation is the ability to start a task independently. This is the power to begin something, even when you don’t want to. Who wants to clean up after you were having so much fun defeating the bad guys, or stop watching the best movie ever to go do homework? “I have so much homework, I don’t even know where to start, I think I’ll just go watch tv.” Does this sound familiar? If so, your child might have difficulties with task initiation. There can be many different reasons why someone is not able to initiate tasks, but often it involves feeling overwhelmed, confused, tired, bored, anxious, or unsure. Some of these tips may help get your child started:
- Set Up for Success – Make sure the environment supports the task to be accomplished. Distractions in the environment will cause more difficulty with initiating the task. If your child needs to do homework, ensure that the environment supports that task by having a comfortable quiet space with all the materials needed. Remember that what works for one child may not work for others, so this may take some experimentation. Cleaning up can be one of the hardest tasks to initiate simply because the task seems too overwhelming. Set your child up for success by having a place for everything and a system for cleaning up (i.e. always start by cleaning up large items first or start with cleaning up the red items, then the blue, etc.).
- Make a List – Provide a list of tasks to be accomplished with specific times to begin. The list should include breaks! Some kids need a sensory break or snack before beginning a task list, especially after a long day at school. Help your child see that they will not be spending the whole night working on homework and chores by providing short breaks interspersed with periods of work. Set time limits for how long your child will work on homework or another difficult task (even if this means they don’t finish all of it). As your child gets better with initiating tasks they will not need as many breaks, and the work time can be extended as needed.
- Work Together – Challenging tasks often go better with teamwork. Kids that feel overwhelmed or unsure feel defeated before they begin, causing them to struggle with even getting started. When a task seems too big for your child to complete on his own, do it with him. If there are toys spread out all over the living room and your child just doesn’t seem to be able to get started, help him out. Give him a place to start: “Johnny you pick up the cars and I will pick up the blocks.” Once a child has something specific to focus on they can get started and will keep going until the task is done, but if not you can nudge him along with another set of items to clean up. If homework is a challenge then sit with your child and walk through the steps of the task together. This might involve you reading a page and your child reading a page, or you writing while your child dictates. The goal isn’t to do the task for your child, but to provide some support so they feel less overwhelmed and more able to get started.
- Working Memory allows us to hold information in our mind while we are using it. Examples include: remembering a phone number while you are dialing the phone without having to look at the number/ making it upstairs, getting shoes and socks, and making it back downstairs with both items; reading a comprehension question and remembering it while reading a page of text to find the answer. These are all situations that require the use of working memory. We have all experienced times when we forget things, and know how frustrating it can be. How many of us have walked into a room only to forget why you are there?! Difficulties in this area can lead to a lot of frustration and inefficiencies for kids (and adults). Here are some strategies to support working memory:
- Make it fun – Play memory games. Start by giving your child a sequence of numbers or a few words to repeat back to you. Keep it simple at first. As your child becomes proficient at repeating 4 or 5 numbers or words increase the difficulty by having your child wait 5-10 seconds before repeating the information. You can continue to increase the difficulty by giving your child the number sequence, and then have them do another task before you ask for the numbers. As your child’s skill improves you can challenge each other.
- Repeat it back – We often tell our children to do something and expect that it will get done without checking to make sure our direction was heard and understood. Have your child repeat back the direction to ensure he has heard and understood what you said. This also provides your child with another opportunity to put the direction into memory. You can also teach your child to repeat the direction over and over to himself until he has completed the task. For example, if you have asked your child to get his shoes and socks from his bedroom, you can teach your child to repeat, “shoes and socks, shoes and socks” as he goes to retrieve those items.
- Write it down – For some children the simple act of writing information down is enough to support and build working memory. Your child might rely on the actual written information for a period of time, but eventually she will not need to carry the actual written direction with her in order to accomplish the task. When I am in the middle of a busy day and need to remember something for later I write myself a note. I may not ever look at the note again, but the simple act of writing it down helps me to hold the information in my working memory until I am able to accomplish that task. This works for children as well.
- Metacognition is a big word that basically means “thinking about thinking”. It refers to having an understanding of how you learn and monitoring your learning. Some of us learn better by hearing information, while others do better with visual information. Do you work better in a quiet environment or with some background noise? Is it easier to learn when you are standing versus sitting? Do you need to just listen or do you need to take notes? All of these types of questions help us to recognize how we learn best. After determining our learning style, we then need to be able to monitor our learning as it is happening. Is taking notes while I am listening to this lecture working for me? Am I having a hard time understanding this material because of the hard chair I am sitting on? Is the teacher talking too fast or is the noise of the fan too loud? Do I find myself rereading the same passage multiple times, and then realize that something about my process isn’t working for me? This is definitely a higher-level skill and will require some support from you to help your child determine learning style and then monitor his learning. Here are some tips for supporting this advanced skill:
- Ask questions and experiment – Start by asking some basic questions. Find out how your child likes to learn best. What type of environment does he like – quiet or with some noise; lots of light, no light, or somewhere in between; sitting down, standing up, lying down; alone or by himself? Next, determine how he likes the information presented – visual, auditory, hands-on, a combination of two or more? You may also talk about how your child likes to provide output – verbally, in written form, with a project or demonstration, or using technology. The answers to these questions may require some observation and experimentation to determine what works best for your child. Most children have some sense of what works for them, but they may not know for sure without trying out some different strategies.
- Participate and monitor – Spend some time doing homework with your child to teach them how to monitor their own learning. After setting up the learning environment with his preferences, work through your child’s homework or other tasks with him. Stop at various points along the way to ask questions and monitor learning. Help your child to ask his own questions to determine if his learning strategies are working. Is the strategy of listening to mom read the book while I stop and take notes working for me? Do I like sitting in my beanbag chair while I chew gum and read (can I focus and remember what I have read)? Does it work for me to make up a rhyme to remember my multiplication facts? Teach your child to stop and do a “learning check” every so often to ensure he is meeting his learning needs.
When children struggle with task initiation, working memory, and metacognition they can feel defeated before they even begin. Not knowing where to start a task, forgetting what you are supposed to be doing, or not understanding why you can’t focus can feel so overwhelming. With your support and consistent implementation of some of these tips, children can improving their executive function skills and find learning and life success.