How to Help a Child Who Struggles With Executive Function

How to Help a Child Who Struggles With Executive Function
Photo: BAZA Production, Shutterstock

Executive function can be thought of as the brain’s manager: It is how we identify priorities, make plans for how to get things done, and adjust for unexpected complications. Doing this requires working memory, emotional self-regulation, and the ability to control our focus. Some kids — especially those with disorders such as ADHD — may struggle with executive functioning.

If a child’s working memory is faulty, they may forget where they left their homework or textbook. If they have a hard time regulating their emotions, they may get easily frustrated or upset, throwing off their ability to follow through on tasks and affecting their relationships with others. If they can’t control their focus, they might struggle to pay attention in class or to switch between tasks.

Signs your child may struggle with executive function

Executive function improves as kids get older, as they progressively learn skills like organisation and emotional regulation. One sign that a child may have issues is if their struggles are disproportionate to their peers.

“Working memory is a big aspect of executive function that is required a lot in school settings,” said Elaine Taylor-Klaus, founder of the organisation Impact Parents and author of The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Children With ADHD, Anxiety and More. “We’re teaching them how to learn information and then apply it, which requires working memory.”

For elementary-age kids, this could be struggling with long division, which requires retaining information long enough to finish the problem, or it could be forgetting their homework at home on a regular basis. It could also be losing their hats, mittens, backpacks, or other items on a regular basis. Issues with executive function can also include emotional outbursts, getting easily distracted, or zoning out when they are supposed to be paying attention.

“Not doing something that you were just asked to do is a really common one,” Taylor-Klaus said. For example, if you send your kid into their room to get their socks, only to find them playing with LEGOs, that could either be distractibility or poor working memory.

Offer understanding and support

The most important thing you can do for a child who struggles with executive functioning is to offer compassion and understanding, as certain tasks are a lot harder for them than for their peers. “It’s important to understand that there is a neurological reason that they are struggling,” Taylor-Klaus said.

Some of this is due to developmental delays, as kids who struggle with executive function are slower to develop certain skills than their peers. “An eight-year-old with challenges in executive function might be on par in some areas as a five-year-old,” Taylor-Klaus said. “It’s about understanding and accepting it, and then creating an environment to support it, rather than judging and punishing it, when it’s not something that they could be expected to do.”

Teach them how to work through problems

For kids who struggle with executive function, this will affect multiple areas of their life. It’s also going to look different for every kid, which means it’s important to actively model how to work through problems as they arise, whatever they might be.

If the issue is forgetting to bring books or schoolwork to school, that could be talking your kid through what items they need to pack in their backpack before getting on the bus. If the issue is emotional regulation, then it could be working out different ways they can deal with their frustrations.

As Taylor-Klaus stresses, this is not about solving your kid’s problems for them, but rather about helping them to come up with the strategies that work best for them. Some specific strategies for poor working memory includes making checklists, using a planner, trying out different learning strategies, and establishing routines.

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