Does your child forget his/her homework on the dining room table when s/he runs off to school? Does s/he remember an unfinished assignment as she climbs into bed? Is s/he always struggling with organization and executive functioning no matter how many times you help him/her to get organized?
We all have moments of forgetfulness when we can’t find our keys or forget where we left our phone. But some kids always seem to be in a constant state of disarray. Papers fly in all directions and they worry about everything except the task at hand.
And what is this executive functioning? Don’t conjure up visions of high rise corporate buildings and white-shirted executives. Executive functioning has more to do with skills that help us organize and act on information. It is not about heads of corporations in crisp business suits.
The Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning incorporates many skills needed for organization. These include skills such as impulse control (thinking before acting), self-monitoring (reflecting on actions one is taking to reach a goal) and focus. It includes task initiation ( getting started on a challenging task), and mental organization (keeping track of physical belongings). Time management skills are also included.
Many kids learn these skills through trial and error, but some have more difficulty with them than others. Even toddlers must learn how to transition from one activity to another. This is especially challenging for young children, who have to stop playing when it is time to eat or bathe.
School aged children are gradually expected to get started on learning activities with less and less adult support. As the child grows into adolescence, teens may resent parent intervention, but may still have difficulty completing certain tasks without parental monitoring.
Many children procrastinate, and this can be frustrating for parents. Parents can encourage children to finish tasks by making rules. Computer time for example, comes only after homework is completed or certain chores are done. This may work well with many children.
Dealing with Frustration
However, parents of children with executive functioning challenges may be frustrated by the intense negative reactions of their children. It is difficult for these children to delay gratification when asked to complete something undesirable. Explain to these children that they will benefit from this in the long run and stay your ground.
These intense reactions come about because it is difficult for this type of child to envision a positive future event. Instead he will tend to only focus on the unpleasant task at hand. Parents can help in this regard by helping the child to visualize a future event. Tell him/her what it will be like to experience the pleasant outcome when s/he is finished the task.
“It will be so nice for you when in less than 30 minutes you have finished your chores. Then you can play your favorite game on the computer!” A well worded statement from a parent or teacher can help a child to focus on the pleasant future event. This will help him focus on the positive rather than remain focused on the negative.
Plan Longer Term Projects
Planning out tasks and setting goals become important in elementary school when children start to be assigned longer term projects. This is also helpful as children start to participate in extra-curricular activities.
Help kids to map out a time line. This can help them visualize that if their project is due in three days, they must plan out their time carefully. By doing so they can see that they must make sure they have time to get it all done. This can be challenging even for adults.
Solutions for Organization Challenges
Challenges with organization can be negotiated through goal setting and planning out time with structured charts like the one below. (You can download this for free here). This can be used to plan out nightly homework or can be revised to work through longer projects.
These children have difficulty knowing how to start when they have homework in several different subjects. Some children prefer to get simple homework tasks done quickly so that they can spend more time on complex tasks. Others prefer to begin with more difficult tasks. Parents can help their children to divide their tasks into difficulty levels. Is this a 2, 5 or 7 on a scale of one to ten? With clear knowledge, children can organize their homework in the style that works best for them.
When you and your child have come up with successful strategies for organization, help your child to implement them. Make sure to give positive feedback to reinforce these successful strategies; “I see this is really working for you” etc.
As demands increase in school, it is helpful to establish a nightly routine. Set up a specific time when a child does homework each night. Some kids need a break from school and time to play before they get down to homework. Others like to get started on homework right away. Work with your child to see what is right for him/her.
All kids benefit from a set place for homework that is free of distractions. If family members congregate in the family room, designate the kitchen or dining room table for homework.
The routine should include returning books and supplies to their proper place and placing homework in the backpack.
Once a routine is established, it helps to keep a consistent routine unless there is a rare emergency. This ensures that homework gets done and that there are fewer tears shed over responsibilities.
Adolescents also flourish, when nightly routines are established. This can be extremely challenging for the adolescent with executive functioning difficulties who struggles with organization.
In additional to a full day of school and increased homework, outside activities increase and social interactions are paramount. Unless clear routines are established, homework can be pushed to late evening hours. At a time when adolescents need more sleep than usual, sleep issues are added to the mix
When the task at hand seems difficult, it is easy to procrastinate or avoid school work all together. Parents can intervene and explain how they negotiate difficult tasks that lead to advancement in the work world. Parents can again help adolescents envision what it will feel like when a task is completed. They will then be free to talk to their friends.
Today kids are easily distracted by social media. This is all the more distracting for kids who struggle with executive functioning. Again, parents can establish homework spaces that are computer and distraction free, so that kids can focus and complete work.
Sound overwhelming? Routines, goal setting, distraction free work zones and discussion, can help our children overcome challenges. Do you have ideas that have worked for your children? Please share your successes (and struggles) in the comments below and let’s share our ideas.
For more detailed information on executive function and organization challenges see: Late, Lost and Unprepared A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning and The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder