It’s already back-to-school time again and with that comes all the preparation and excitement for the new school year. Decisions around the house will once again revolve around choosing between schoolwork versus video games, getting homework done amidst a fully scheduled calendar and deciding whether to prepare lunches the night before or in the morning.
For some, these decisions will be easily made – work first, play later. For others procrastination may be the name of the game, putting off work until the last minute, which can often lead to lack of sleep and endless parental nagging.
And yet there is another subset of the population who struggles with what neuroscientists have called “executive function.” Executive function refers to all the cognitive processes that allow us to achieve goals – prioritizing, managing time, separating the big picture from details, shifting from one task to another (often called flexibility), checking as you go and reflecting on your outcome (self monitoring).
For individuals challenged with executive function skills, it is not a question of motivation or effort, but rather just not knowing where to start or how to proceed. Without specific teaching, getting organized is not all that easy. As with many other life skills – like skiing, reading, singing – some of us have more intuitive talent than others.
Problems with executive functioning usually do not present themselves until middle school, at which point the child can be negatively affected academically, socially and emotionally. For children struggling with executive function difficulties, it is extremely important to develop a strategy that works for your child’s learning style and personality so that s/he may find success in school as well as later in life.
You can do this by talking to your child’s teacher or doctor to see if they have any suggestions on what next steps to take. You can also have your child complete a learning evaluation which will allow you to see his/her strengths and weaknesses. Then, working with the school or instructor, you can create a plan that will help your child find success.
In the meantime here are some tips and strategies that you can try at home at the start of the new school year to help your child stay prepared as well as plan and manage his/her time more efficiently. Help and encourage your child to:
• Create checklists. Following a checklist minimizes the mental and emotional strain many kids with executive dysfunction experience while trying to make decisions.
• Follow routines. Creating routines makes it easier for your child to remember what comes next and keeps them from getting distracted doing something else (i.e. start homework at the same time every night).
• Create an organized space. Make a space for your child to do homework each night and stock with school supplies.
• Break up big projects into smaller steps. Then prioritize the steps and then estimate how long each will take.
• Use a calendar to “backwards plan.” Allocate time to work on each step. If a project is due on a certain date, work back from that date filling in what needs to be done each day to have a completed project in the time frame given.
There are some people who even with the best of intentions and implementation of strategies still find themselves scattered and unorganized. When an individual feels like things are not working it might be time to seek the help of experts.
If you suspect that you or your child has EF, an evaluation can help determine how your child learns and rule out any suspicions.