By Jen Dryer, M.A.
It’s 7:30 p.m. and 11-year-old Jack has been staring blankly at a document titled “The Causes of the Civil War” for a solid five minutes. He lets out an exasperated sigh and begins doodling on the paper next to the keyboard. The essay he has yet to begin is due tomorrow.
Sound familiar? For those of us with kids who struggle with executive functioning, this is a common scenario. It’s not that Jack doesn’t want to complete his work or that the assignment is too difficult for him, but he lacks the tools and support to get started, and he struggles to envision both the finished product and the path to get there. And it’s late, and he’s tired.
Executive functioning (EF) is essentially the ability to see ourselves moving from point A to point B to point C, or completing tasks from start to finish. EF involves organization, prioritization, task management, self-regulation and working memory. The latter two concepts on this list merit an explanation.
Is the ability to stay levelheaded, to return to equanimity after a stress-inducing experience and to negotiate challenging tasks as calmly as possible. For instance, a child struggling with a math problem might take a deep breath and ask for help. Or a child told they can’t go to the swimming pool as planned feeling disappointed but – importantly – remaining in control of their emotions.
Is the ability to draw on past experiences to help inform decisions and perceptions of present or future events. People with EF challenges often struggle to recall outcomes of past events that might help them navigate a current experience, and as a result may make the same mistake over and over again. Ryan Wexelblatt (“ADHD Dude”) likens the EF system to a “brain coach” – the internal voice that gives us feedback and directions. For those with EF challenges, the volume of that internal voice is so low that the person fails to recall what happened the last time a similar event occurred. This is why many of our kids forget to turn in a completed assignment three times in a row.
It’s critical to understand that EF challenges are NOT behavior, attitude or intelligence issues, but simply the result of brain wiring that needs extra support to accomplish tasks. For kids with EF challenges who struggle to manage their schoolwork, using the lens of EF can help tremendously to set them up for homework success.
EF skills are largely invisible; they are plans that people with robust EF systems typically work out in their heads, often unconsciously, in order to complete the task at hand. To get our kids to school on time, we work backwards from drop-off time at the bus stop, to packing their lunches and backpacks, to ensuring they’re dressed and ready. We do all of this invisibly. For kids with EF challenges, we need to help them make the invisible visible.
Helping your child build EF skills will:
It’s key that we shift from being our kids’ external EF system (e.g., constantly reminding, packing their backpacks for them, etc.) to empowering them to develop their own EF skills and manage their own tasks. As Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson advise, parents should be a consultant for their child, rather than their manager. This is easier said than done, so here are some steps to help move in that direction.
Work together with your child to set up a workspace (see “THE HOW” below to set up the conversation). Collaboration is imperative to ensure that your child will buy into the new setup and provide critical insights into what will help them (building metacognition along the way!).
Some key elements for designing their workspace for maximal work efficiency are:
Here’s another opportunity to tuck in metacognitive skills: ask your child when their brain is most focused and works best. If your child is most alert and productive in the morning, help set up their bedtime routine so they can wake up early enough to get most of their homework done in the morning. Our brains have peak alertness times; helping them identify theirs is key. Here are a few elements to set up together:
For any of these supports to have any traction, you will need to collaborate with your child on the workspace, timing and structures that will allow them (not you!) to be the most productive and engaged. Few kids will eagerly enter into a conversation about setting up homework protocols, so plan to tee up the conversation thoughtfully.
Ross Greene recommends a problem-solving lens, starting with a noticing (“I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling to find a good place to get homework done. What’s up?”). Next, voice your concerns (“My concern is that if you don’t have a solid place, time and setup to get your work done, you’ll fall behind and I know that doesn’t feel good for you.”). Then invite them to problem-solve collaboratively (“I wonder if there’s a way we can create a good place for you to do homework, so you can get it done more easily?”). Start with collaborating with your child to identify the Where and the When, using some of the suggestions above.
If you can help them identify their primary homework challenges, alongside their learning style, strengths and challenges, you can collaboratively brainstorm possible solutions.
Creating supports for your child with EF challenges is complex and rarely done perfectly the first time. Envision those supports as works in progress: check back in after a few weeks and assess whether the system works well, needs tweaks or should be replaced. There are many resources to support kids with EF challenges in school, including printable calendars and EF-focused agenda notebooks. I recommend perusing some of them alongside your child to find what they think will be best.
I often say that parenting is 75% problem-solving, and that teaching our kids to see their homework challenges as problems they can break down and solve will serve them well as they move through school and life.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Washington Parent magazine.
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