For parents and anyone who works with parents- here are some thoughts about the most important skills any child needs, and why it may be a struggle to develop them.
First, I always remind parents that gaining executive functioning skills is not like having chicken pox—once and you’re done. It’s more like putting together a mental “bag of tricks”, the way you had a “baby bag” with supplies when you left the house years ago. Executive functions are a group of skills that develop over time. I describe them as “habits of mind”. They are the reason we adults make shopping lists, or a list of tasks to get done in a day, and why we try to organize that list so we can be reasonably sure of getting most of those tasks accomplished.
Some of these skills include planning, organizing, prioritizing, and monitoring your work:
- Keeping track of assignments with some kind of agenda book, and the materials/books needed to complete them
- Knowing how much work needs to be done (at home and in school) and putting this work in priority order (most difficult/important work first)
- Breaking down larger assignments into smaller “chunks” and planning to complete them
- Figuring out what the assignment calls for, even when the instructions are limited (being able to work independently)
- Multitasking (keeping several aspects of a task in mind at the same time, juggling different tasks)
- Taking (or getting) a good set of notes, and the right information to study for a test
- Being able to plan your time over a day, a week, or longer
All children take time to develop these skills. It depends on how quickly certain parts of the brain develop. For kids who are developing at an average pace, this part of the brain is not fully mature until their mid-20s, which is a rather terrifying idea! For children with special needs, who struggle with a learning problem, ADHD, developmental delay or autism spectrum disorder, it will almost certainly take longer.
In schools, teachers seem to expect these skills will increase on their own from around third to sixth grades (8-12 years) until they are miraculously in place by around seventh grade. Of course, this is not how it works for nearly every child I have worked with or observed in school! Executive functioning skills need to be taught directly. Teachers need to describe and list the skills, explain why they are important, and allow time for practice, questions, and review. The skills need to be used consistently by different teachers during the school day. Parents need to know what skills are being taught and how to use them at home.
So, why doesn’t your child have these skills? Partly, it’s the result of brain development and your child’s individual delays in development. Partly, it isn’t being taught effectively. So, look for my next blog—Part 2: what schools should be doing to help your child learn executive functioning skills, and what parents can do at home to help and support their children.
As always, please feel free to share this blog with parents or professionals, or to contact me with questions. I am here to help.