By Saskia Nilsen, M.A. Learning Specialist and RITES advocate
Good executive functioning is the key to success with life skills.
Model Flexible Thinking: We often make hundreds of decisions a day – chicken or beef tacos for dinner, answer the phone or call back later, etc. A large part of executive functioning is the inner dialogue and flexible thinking we have with ourselves while we make decisions. For example, you plan on having beef tacos, but when you open the fridge, you notice the chicken will expire sooner, so you change your mind.
These are exactly the types of decision processes that need to be shared and modeled with a child who struggles with executive functioning. Understanding how each choice might play out by discussing the factors involved while weighing a decision will help her to develop her own inner dialogue and avoid impulse decisions in the future.
Making the connection to the decision in the moment and the possible long-term outcomes can be improved through modeling and practice. Think of it as the various levels of chess playing – do you just know how to move the pieces on the board or do you have a strategy for how to take a piece? These strategies can be taught, practiced and become habit as students learn when and how to use them.
Ask the Right Questions: Kids learn how to deal with difficult situations when they learn what questions to ask and answer. Learning to problem-solve and build resiliency are key executive functioning skills that require self-talk. Until your child develops his own positive self-talk, asking key questions can help him understand how to use his brain to become his own cheerleader.
It can also help if you praise his effort more than the outcome to show that he is improving in micro-steps by using the process. This also helps your child set small, manageable goals to improve his school work from day to day.
Questions that ask your child to review his work, such as:
“If you could change one thing about this assignment, what would you have done differently?” helps him be a better planner for the next assignment.
“What other evidence from the book supports your ideas?” leads to the possibility of adding to an answer to make it stronger.
A question such as, “Why do you think your teacher wrote this in the directions?” makes sure your child’s attention is drawn to an important part of his assignment. Think of the goal you have for your child and ask him a question that allows him to identify that goal for himself. Along with some praise sandwiched in between the questions, this can be an extremely motivating approach for students who struggle with executive functioning, by cuing them in a way that allows them to maintain ownership and stay engaged.
Ways to Organize Things and Thoughts: Clearing away the clutter is the ultimate executive function challenge, whether it is the backpack, the bedroom, or research for an essay. Usually being too overwhelmed to even start, executive function-challenged students need to develop a system of organization, which becomes ritualized.
Planners, binder systems, weekly locker and backpack clean-outs, dedicated time for filing papers each night, are just some of the ways to keep organized. Well-placed checklists, such as a list of materials that belong in the backpack, laminated and attached to the backpack, can reduce the disorganization of things. A good resource for this is the book The Organized Student, by Donna Goldberg.
Mental organization of ideas is harder to support, but graphic organizers, outline templates, story maps and individualized note-taking formats are a great start.
Reward the Development of Positive Habits: Rewarding the use of these strategies, helping your child to practice these skills, praising independent application of strategies and the gradual fading of supervision of a particular strategy after the skill has become a habit, are key parts to developing stronger executive functioning.
The simple act of pairing a positive reward with a task makes our brains more likely to repeat the positive behavior. Rewards can be treats, time to do a preferred activity, or credits earned toward allowance or prize.
Sometimes this seems silly with older students, but actually, is still quite effective if you make the rewards age-appropriate. Extra Internet time, a new phone case, credits toward movie money, etc. are examples of rewards students created with parents to motivate themselves through the harder parts of their homework.
This may seem like a lot to do as a parent, but you are not alone. RITES specializes in study skills and offers 1-to-1 tutoring with a focus on executive functioning. In addition, the Study Smarter, Not Harder workshop runs several times a year for middle school and high school students. Go online for descriptions and dates, or contact RITES at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-723-4459.
Miss any of the other parts to our Executive Functioning blog series? Click on the links below to catch up!