Executive Functioning: The Struggle is Real

3/10/2021 2:00:48 PM

Confucius said that a journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.  That is all well and good, but for someone who struggles with Executive Functioning, even that first step can seem like a thousand miles. The technical definition of Executive Functioning (EF) is, "the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions." It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions. A person with excellent EF skills will not have problems creating a plan, organizing, sticking to it and shifting gears, if necessary. Those who lack EF skills will certainly have trouble when they enter school especially when they get older and need to become more independent. Projects can seem overwhelming. There is so much work to be done, and yet, they don't seem to know where to begin. Once they do begin, they can struggle to keep on task, stay organized and be able to adjust and change directions. The struggle for them is real.


Even the brightest of kids can struggle with this because it is no way connected to ability or intellect. It is not an innate ability. It must be taught and developed. Even at a very young age (as early as toddler years), children can be taught the necessary skills to have excellent EF skills later in life.  Games as simple as peek-a-boo and hide and go seek use working memory, attention span, and concentration. These are your building blocks. They teach focus and problem-solving.  As the child grows older, they will benefit from participating in sports, doing chores, playing strategy games and playing a musical instrument.


Because it is a learned and acquired skill, students who struggle with EF skills can get on track with strategies that make sense to them.  The caveat is that it is not a one size fits all approach. From my years in education, I know that kids learn differently, and what works for one won't work for all. My advice is to first figure out what kind of learning style the student has.  Is he or she a visual learner? Auditory learner? Kinesthetic learner?  All of these influences can determine which strategy you employ.  


For visual learners, I am a huge proponent of project boards, sticky notes, and paper or electronic calendars.  The more color-coding the better.   For visual students, I recommend color coordinating their books, notebooks, and folders. Visually, they will be able to grab what they need based on the subject. I, personally, am a visual learner.  I have a huge whiteboard with sticky notes and different colored markers for different projects I am working on.  This is how I operate and organize.  It makes sense in my brain.


Auditory learners organize things quite differently.  Those kids benefit from setting alarms on phones or timers to keep them on track. Noise reduction headphones or conversely, music can help tune distractions out that will cause concentration issues. It can also be helpful to leave voice reminders for themselves on their phones.  You will often hear these kiddos talking to themselves to remind them of the steps needed to do a task.  My son did this while learning to drive.  He gave himself directions on how to parallel park. It was funny and slightly disconcerting at the same time.


The kinesthetic learner will benefit from scratching things off their lists.  This gives them a sense of accomplishment and keeps them on track.  They can also benefit from moving around while doing a task. Pacing is a normal thing while working on a project or studying. It keeps them focused. Another thing I have found that helps an active kid stay on task is an organization app.  Habitica is an app that works like a video game awarding kids with gold coins for completing a task.  For every task they complete, they check it off their list and earn rewards. They can also compete against their friends to earn points. Wunderlist is another app that allows kids to compete against their friends to check things off their to-do lists.  It is a great way to motivate kids that need some movement.  These apps will also help students who are social learners and like to work with others to accomplish a goal.


These are just some of the strategies that I use while working with students with Executive Functioning deficits.  The good news is that these are skills that can be developed at any time so they do not have to struggle. Look for future posts regarding specific ways to engage students based on learning styles.