Ever feel like your kid is knee deep in due-yesterday projects, black-hole backpacks (is that…a banana?), lost books and is always running 15 minutes late? If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Difficulty staying organized is commonplace in our fast-paced, on-the-go competitive world and our kids’ brains can’t always keep up. The area responsible is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which controls executive function.
Executive functions are the cognitive abilities that allow us to manage time and working memory; control impulses and emotions; plan, initiate and complete endeavors; all while retaining mental flexibility and focus. And whether underdeveloped due to individuality, maturity or wiring (ADHD, for example), some brains simply can’t handle the demands placed on them that are necessary to thrive. “When children struggle with executive function, they often have trouble with organization, getting started on tasks, prioritizing one task over another, shifting from one task to another, or sustaining their focus long enough to complete a task,” says Diane Sottile, Ph.D, a Summit-based executive function coach specializing in ADHD.
MANAGING DAY-TO-DAY TASKS
Alexander Wright, Psy.D, a Ramsey-based licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist, likens executive function to a management system of a household or business. If that system were disorganized, the whole thing would fall apart. Effective executive functioning skills boost concentration and ordered thinking—something that benefits everything from making friends to excelling in classes. “A more efficient management system is a powerful tool aiding in learning new information, comprehension, retention and meta cognitive problem solving,” he says, noting it can also organize thinking in a way that helps kids cope with everyday challenges. This inability to process (and act) on information in a productive way can create all sorts of problems from stress to low self-esteem—not just missed assignments and chronic issues with lateness.
Ironically, the high-pressured, fast-paced, tech-centric sea we swim in has both increased executive function dysfunction in our children (and maybe ourselves) and our need to improve it. “A mind that is busy and disorganized meets new information or a lot of information with increased resistance and related stress, as organizing the information in the environment can become all the more fatiguing and confusing,” says Wright. “A strong executive functioning system is more accurately a balanced one,” he says, suggesting that we avoid shaming, labeling or pathologizing mental differences. “There are tremendous advantages to a mind that is different in these ways. Individuals with executive functioning differences tend to be intellectually bright, creative, effective multi-taskers and/or a combination of the three.”
Even if your child is the master of the color-coded binder now, executive function isn’t static. Technology can exacerbate the issue, while hormones can throw the whole thing out of whack during puberty and adolescence. Boys seem to struggle more with executive function skills (and have higher rates of ADHD and autism). Do girls’ brains mature earlier or differently? Or perhaps diagnoses are missed. Another parent observation is that their once stellar student hits a wall come middle school or even high school. This is not uncommon. Many smart kids are able to compensate for executive function deficits until the difficulty and workload increases at which point they may need help.
HOW TO HELP
Whether on your own or with the help of a therapist or coach, parents should first identify what they need to work on, identify appropriate behaviors, then make a plan complete with helpful materials and ways to keep schedules on track, according to Jill Saxon, Ph.D, behavior analyst and owner of Functional Behavior Solutions in Westfield and Montclair. Problem solving and flexibility are a must as kids move towards their goals.
“The piece that I think is the most important for families to know is that executive functioning skills can be taught,” says Saxon. “The second most important piece is that we know from behavioral science that growth comes from repeated success. So, our job as adults who support children is to identify where the challenges lie, and then give them the support needed to repeatedly practice doing it correctly. We make sure they experience success, make sure their successful practice results in something awesome for them, and then slowly reduce any supports we are able to reduce while maintaining this success.”
Need a little help at home? Try this expert advice:
DIANE SOTTILE, PH.D
Create a weekly written action list. This should not only include what homework needs to be completed, but also the 3 Ws and 1 H: “What are you going to do, and in what order? Where are you going to do it? When are you going to do it? How will you get yourself started?” Time their tasks. Use a clock, stopwatch or other time-tracking tool to determine how long schoolwork takes to complete—it’s key to creating time awareness (the first step towards time management.) “Kids need to be able to develop their ability to assess how long a task or assignment will take. Give kids a heads up. Do this before starting a task or leaving home. Even better, try using a visual timer to count down the minutes. “If you say, ‘we are leaving for school in 10 minutes,’ your child may have no idea how long 10 minutes actually is.”
JILL SAXON, PH.D
Don’t go it alone. Teachers and other school staff can help identify specific areas of challenge (organization of school materials, following a schedule, sustaining attention in class, etc.) and can provide supports and practice opportunities to help your child improve executive function skills. Show don’t tell. Merely pointing out what should or shouldn’t have been done may not be enough for kids with skills deficits. “It is the supported practice that results in success that teaches the new skill.” Divide and conquer. Break complicated tasks (like packing a backpack for school) into micro-steps, then encourage the use of visual aids (such as schedules and checklists) and self-monitoring (try repeated self check-ins) to keep kids focused.
ALEXANDER WRIGHT, PSY.D
Be mindful and listen. Instead of getting riled up when faced with challenges, try to meet the situation with calm, non-judgement and understanding. Practice mindfulness and deep listening as a way to ease the anxiety and stress that worsens executive function issues. Differences can be superpowers. Ease up on the sweets. As part of a holistic approach, cut back on sugar. “It’s a stimulant. There’s a dopamine response that fuels chaos along with cortisol” which is why parents should consciously reduce sugar in their kids’ diets. Put your family on a tech diet. The stimulating effect of technology is catnip to kids with attention issues, as it can have a curiously calming effect. “The disorganized mind finds comfort in the chaos.” Yet it’s also addictive, making the mind even more scattered. Reducing screen time will enhance patience, ease stress, and help kids’ brains focus.
—Jennifer Kantor is an education, parenting and lifestyle writer and a Maplewood mom of two.