Executive function is beyond the buzzword stage, it’s become the way of describing children who appear to be underperforming in school but who don’t have a discrete, diagnosed learning disability. There are private companies who train executive function coaches in week-long workshops, even if coaches have no classroom teaching experience or training in a related field. There are multiple games developed by scientists marketed to improve focus and stamina in children with diagnoses of ADHD and executive function deficits. It all sounds very technical, professional, and like we can fix executive function deficits with specific trademarked, commercialized products.
Not so much.
All kids are cognitively different both from each other and from adults. Executive function is a grab-bag descriptor of the various functions “executed” in the prefrontal cortex. These include: impulse inhibition, task initiation, working memory, cognitive flexibility, focus, and organizational skills. Executive function deficits are sometimes heritable, are always a matter of maturity, and are also affected by fatigue, stress, emotional state, and hunger. Reliable strategies for improving executive function skills are in huge demand and the marketplace is getting crowded. Sadly, there is little evidence that the current gains in understanding brain function have direct implications for “educational delivery.”
What’s a teacher, tutor, coach, or parent to do? While I can’t claim to “fix” a child’s executive function issues, I can say that experienced, well-trained, reflective practitioners who keep up on the research can help children improve their school performance. Parents can help too. Here are some methods that have positive results in classroom engagement and task completion:
1 | Validate
We know what it’s like to be given a seemingly impossible task. When your child cries when he does his homework, feeling hopeless and helpless, the feeling is contagious. We feel hopeless and helpless as well, and that feeling can turn to anger. Break this cycle by validating his frustration. Say, yes, you realize math is difficult and his teacher might be a weirdo, but he still needs to try his best. First he should take a breather, dry his eyes, and have a glass of water (and maybe a cookie).
2 | Differentiate
Help your child learn to distinguish between types of tasks. Memorization tasks can take a lot of energy and should be prioritized. Multi-step projects need to be planned out, even when teachers do not provide a planning template. (Planning templates can be found online or through a tutor or coach.)
3 | Create a fail-safe environment
Yes, your child should be able to keep track of her chargers, pens, pencils, and folder (even though she knows where her eyeliner is at all times). Still, the problem is real. She has nothing to write with and this wastes precious time and energy. Have charger, paper, a working printer, mechanical pencils, and extra folders around the house.
4 | Praise
Be positive. “Wow, it’s great you did your art project during your free period,” will go down a lot better than “You’re spending way too much time on nonacademic stuff.” Doing pleasurable activities actually primes the brain for moving onto more aversive or challenging work.
5 | Model good coping mechanisms
Notice if you vent when frustrated or give up easily on unpleasant tasks in front of your child. We all do this sometimes, but venting frustration as a habit can cost a student (or an adult) a lot of much-needed energy. Next time you break a wineglass, do the silent screaming thing, then calmly find the broom and dustpan and show your kid what perseverance looks like.
6 | Redirection
Redirect a distracted kid, but do so kindly. When we treat a distracted student harshly, we’ve added to his cognitive load. He now feels humiliated in addition to frustrated or fatigued. Say, “Hmmm, are those Pokemon cards part of a school assignment?” not “I’m going to flush these damn things down the toilet next time I see them.”
7 | Ask, don’t tell
When a child is frustrated, lost, or unfocused, ask what’s up rather than lecture them on what they’re not doing. They know already! They may have some important insights on how they are thinking. Sometimes, kids day-dream while they are reading, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a character or to live in a certain time period. This is age-appropriate, even for teens. Such dreaminess is not time-effective, but it can foster creativity.
8| Help with task-comprehension, not task-fulfillment
Often kids overreact when they see a new word in an essay question or if a page of homework looks unfamiliar in format. Model how to engage with a novel task or concept. Read the task aloud and ask which parts are difficult to understand, but then let your child muddle along in completing the assignment.
It can be frustrating, even saddening, to watch a child struggle, but learning to struggle is essential. School assignments today are often more complex than assignments we may have gotten as students. Open-ended, thought-provoking, complex questions prepare middle schoolers for high school and high schoolers for college. These assignments are supposed to be challenging.
9 | Use timers
Short breaks help your child focus. Many kids rush through assignments but others drag out work, so a task that should take half an hour takes an hour instead. When they see how time-effective focused attention can be, kids are often delighted. Don’t take this from them by keeping them busy with chores or music practice. Let them taste the freedom!
For the rushers, the timer demonstrates how much time they should actually be investing in their work. They may recognize that when they read for 30 minutes straight, not 10, they can keep up with the pace set by the teacher.
10 | Listen to failure
Be a listener when your child fails, not a lecturer (or at least wait to lecture). Ask how he feels about his low performance on his math test and how he’d like to problem-solve. When your child believes he’s been given agency, he’ll focus better and be more self-motivated. He may not suddenly become an A student, but self-control must be experienced to be improved upon.
This piece was previously published on my (not very active) blog.