“Executive Function Challenges…What Works?” — Lindsey Thoms

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Over 110 parents joined The StudyPro’s Lindsey Thoms, M.Ed. for her talk entitled, “Executive Function Challenges? Five Proven Ways to Help”.

Executive Function (EF) is the technical term for the mental processes involved in getting stuff done. As Lindsey put it, Executive Function is about the ability to set a goal and follow through with it. Whether it’s a big lifelong goal like educational success or a smaller goal like finishing a piece of homework, it is all fueled by our Executive Functions.

Most kids struggle with setting and achieving goals. In fact, in our fast-paced, multi-tasking world, who doesn’t? And for kids with Executive Function challenges, these problems may seem insurmountable. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Lindsey explained the basics of how Executive Functions develop and, most importantly, shared her strategies for helping identify EF challenges and building skills for bolstering missing or underdeveloped skills.

So many of us face a daily fight to get our kids to do their homework! So we all sat up and listened as Lindsey took on this challenge. It’s not the case, she pointed out, that kids do well if they want to. In reality, kids do well if they can. In order to get their homework done, Lindsey said, kids need to both ‘know what to do’, as well as ‘do what they know’.

The heart of the matter is breaking any task down into small, recognizable pieces that can be tackled one by one – this is how kids know what to do – and have a clearly defined endpoint – which is how kids succeed at doing what they know. Here our role as parents is paramount. We need to move away from labeling our homework-shirkers as lazy or disrespectful. What they need from us is understanding! As parents, we have to look beyond the frustration of homework avoidance to figure out the real story (what Lindsey calls the “need behind the behavior”), i.e. what is really happening, and why?

As an all-too familiar example, we tell our kids to do their homework, and they do… well, nothing. One common problem for kids is knowing how to get started. Instead of criticizing (thinking they are lazy) or getting mad (at the behavior), we need to help come up how to deal with the true “need behind the behavior” aka ideas for initiation strategies. For example, we can set up routines that support getting homework started: doing it at the same time every day, in the same spot, with cell phone in the other room, and/or before changing out of school clothes. Once we’ve helped devise a system that makes getting started easier, we and our kids are better placed to succeed. Instead of firing off the long-ignored command to “do your homework,” we can be more specific with “Why don’t you get started by checking your assignment book?”

Routines are just one of many strategies that were shared for helping kids deal with executive function challenges. There are also checklists and other visual organizers, folders and binders for keeping in control of papers, graphic organizers and calendars to keep track of interim and final deadlines, and of course lots of tech tools that can help.

None of this is easy. Success depends on building habits that support it, and building habits takes time and effort. But stick with it! We as parents can support our students by managing our own behavior first. Drop the judgment, identify the goal, and help look for the solution. And as our kids struggle to stick to the strategic plan, we can be there to provide what Lindsey called “bumper lanes,” those little extra nudges back on track.

And most importantly, our relationships with our kids matter more than any one homework assignment or test. By helping them to identify what they need to do to succeed, we can encourage them to develop independence and save our time together for more positive interactions than the age-old daily homework battle.