What the Heck is Executive Functioning?

What the Heck is Executive Functioning?

After I explained the directions, my student Jane always asked what we were doing. She brought the wrong notebook to class. All the time. Her backpack was a mess and her planner was empty. Twenty minutes into an activity and she had just started it.

Did you know a Jane in school? Or were you Jane?

I have taught a LOT of Janes over the years. Kids who couldn’t get organized, plan, or follow directions. The thing is, it wasn’t malicious or even planned. These were skills that my students truly struggled with. And by high school, it was affecting their grades.

Jane and all the students like her had a problem with executive functioning. According to the Child Mind Institute, executive functioning is a series of self-regulation skills that “we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps, and keep them in mind until we get things done.

Essentially, these skills act as a CEO – they analyze information and make plans for the future. Executive functioning skills develop over time. That’s why a 1st grader can’t plan beyond this afternoon, but a college student can plan a few months out. However, in some kids, they develop much more slowly.

If some of these behaviors sound familiar, listen up! Signs that your child has problems with executive functioning include:

  • Forgetting the same items (bookbag, textbook, etc) over and over again
  • Messy, disorganized bedroom and personal belongings
  • Forgets to complete or turn in homework assignments
  • Difficulty transitioning and starting new tasks

Executive functioning problems are common for kids diagnosed with ADHD, but also with other learning disabilities. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to cure executive functioning problems. Only explicit teaching of planning and self-regulation techniques will do it.

How to Strengthen Executive Functioning in Teens

Teach Teens to Use Planners

Teens with executive functioning difficulties struggle to remember assignments and plan for the future.  In fact, they won’t remember that they won’t remember. Not only do they need a good planner, but they also need to be taught how to use a planner. And they need lots of reminders along the way.

While I love a paper planner (especially this one!), most electronic planners can send reminders and notifications to the student’s phone. Since teens have their phones on them all the time, this could really help.

For more on teen planner use, check out my post here!

Break down larger tasks into small chunks

Kids who struggle with executive functioning often don’t recognize there are multiple steps to complete a task. Or they get overwhelmed by the size of the task and never start. Teach them how to break down longer assignments into smaller chunks.

The smaller steps are more manageable and give them something to focus on. Be sure to have them schedule those smaller chunks in their planner!

For examples, check out my post on long-term project planning.

Use checklists to get stuff done

After breaking down assignments or even daily routines into chunks, create a checklist for her to follow! You can create written or visual checklists for one-time events like a research paper or for daily activities, such as getting ready for school each day.  There are 2 different kinds of checklists you can create:

  • Task lists are used when tasks need to be completed in a certain order. You could create a task list for weekly organization (backpack cleanout, planner update, etc) that can be reused each week.
  • To-do lists are more flexible; tasks can be completed in any order. To-do lists are great for capturing all the unique things you need to complete for that week.

Create routines

Parents can create routines for the entire household – work on homework from 4-5:30, dinner at 6 PM, get ready for the next school day at 8:30 PM. Obviously, this can be difficult if you have a lot of kids with lots of activities. However, a routine that includes structured times for particular activities is a big help for kids who struggle with executive functioning.

Check out some possible routines in this Back-to-School post. They can be implemented any time of the year!

It takes a village, y’all

Parents and teens don’t have to struggle with this on your own! Get help when and where you need it. Always talk to the classroom teacher – what behaviors and patterns does she see in the classroom?

See if the counselor or school psychologist can observe your child in the classroom. Research possible accommodations and see if the school or teachers will implement them. If your child has an IEP or 504 plan, those accommodations must be implemented.

If that isn’t enough or you need a single point-person, consider a private tutor. Look for one with classroom teaching experience and who specializes in organization or planning. (Psst – that describes me! I’d love to help out. Schedule an appointment right now!)

Let me know how it goes in the comments below!


Related Posts: 10 Powerful TED Talks for Parents of TeensHow to Know if Your Teen Needs a Tutor, Sure Fire Tips for Better Communication with TeachersWhat NOT to Say When Your Child is Failing

Worried that your teen has problems with executive functioning skills? Find out what to look for and how to help teens who struggle with these skills! | #executivefunctioning #parentingteens


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