Executive Functioning: What It Is & How To Help

understanding executive functioning

What is Executive Functioning? Chances are you’ve heard those words before, at least a time or two. Maybe you’ve heard them in an IEP meeting or educational setting, or maybe your child has been assessed for his or her learning challenges and this phrase has come up. But what exactly is executive functioning and what can you do if your child struggles with it?

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Executive Functioning deals with areas of thinking, planning, and regulating.

For children who struggle with executive functioning, there’s often a gap in the thinking process or a conflict between understanding what’s expected and following the steps to get there.

The best way to understand this is to think about a remedial task you do every single day, for example, brushing your teeth. For someone who doesn’t struggle with executive functions, the steps of walking to the bathroom, getting out the toothbrush, opening the cap, squeezing out the paste, running the brush under the water, and putting the brush in your mouth—are easy! For a child whose skills are challenged, these seemingly simple tasks can get lost in the ‘shuffle’ in the brain.

Rather than these steps being second nature, a child who has trouble in this area has to work extra hard to put the steps in order and complete them one by one, often forgetting the overall goal or purpose (and can even become distracted during the execution, too)!

The areas of thinking, planning, processing, and self-regulation/self-control are very difficult for a child to whom this doesn’t come naturally. That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs and help your child understand that he or she is not ‘slow’ or ‘less smart’ than others. He or she simply processes in a different way.

2. Some people will need extra support for the ‘basics.’ (And that’s okay!)

For a child who struggles with executive functions, sometimes the ‘basics’ can be hard. Even if you have a regular schedule at home, your child might not remember what comes next (even if you’ve done the same step-by-step for years!).

Sometimes your child may ask repetitive questions, walk around looking lost, stare off into space, or simply act clueless. And sometimes your child won’t even realize what he or she is doing! This isn’t because of a lack of interest or care; this is a sign for help and a need for supports (visual, auditory, etc.) to help him/her stay on track.

3. Repetitive routines and clear expectations are infinitely helpful.

Whenever possible, try to establish clear and set routines for your child. This can be as simple as a ‘schedule’ for before and after school activities, or a ‘checklist’ for completing homework. Depending on your child’s needs, he or she may also need visual or verbal prompt reminders, too.

4. Be supportive and patient while you find opportunities for mastery.

Although it may seem positive and encouraging to tell your child, “You can do it!” or “I know you’re able to do this!” It may actually be counterproductive (and potentially even damaging!) for a child who struggles with executive functioning.

It’s not that your child is incapable, but perhaps spelling a word, getting his/her homework done by a certain time, or following the checklist by him/herself is an insurmountable task.

Rather than trying to push your child (and him/her potentially failing and feeling frustrated) try to find tasks that he or she can master. Start small! It may be as simple as remembering to clear his or her plate after dinner, feeding the dog, or even taking off his/her shoes as soon as he gets home. Of course, this will depend on your child’s age and abilities, but find ways to show your child that he or she is capable.

This will create a sense of confidence that will support the executive functioning skillset.

Did you know that we offer one-on-one Educational Therapy that supports the building of executive functioning, processing, planning, and regulating skills? Click here to learn more about our programs or give us a call at (858) 367-5428!

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