Kids returning to school can prompt a range of emotions in parents, from excitement to trepidation—depending on how the last school year ended. You can help your child to be successful by creating a supportive structure to help him get organized. Requisite brain skills for school success, known as “executive functions,” impact mental organization, behavior, attention, independent learning, and making good decisions throughout life.
How do executive function skills help?
Executive function skills are a group of thinking skills responsible for organizing simple and complex tasks. They’re necessary so your child can effectively manage himself and his time, his physical space, and his materials. These skills are often thought of as the “CEO” or “conductor” of your brain, since they organize the mental control of attention, setting goals, having mental flexibility, and combining new and old information.
Each mental task is explained below.
• Attention is the ability to choose and control what you will pay attention to.
• Setting goals requires the ability to prioritize, organize, and successfully predict outcomes and consequences.
• Mental flexibility includes having self-control, and it requires the ability to change and adapt to sensory input and new situations.
• Information processing is the ability to efficiently comprehend, remember, and use information to support attention, learning, behavior, and communication.
If your child struggles with executive functions, you have two options. The first is to assume the role as the “CEO” of your child’s brain (by supporting him with compensatory strategies) in order to accomplish important tasks. The second option is to remediate the root cause of the executive function problem with specialized brain training intervention. The symptoms may look like problems with attention, behavior, organization, low self-esteem, and poor reading, writing, or math; however, the underlying root of those challenges may actually be related to problems with auditory processing, memory, comprehension, visual processing, processing speed, active primitive reflexes, and more.
Strategies for homework and organization
• Organize a reference binder with your child’s class information: Write down teacher and classmate contact information and make a copy of the syllabus containing assignments, tests, and project due dates.
• Get a student planner for each child: Spend 10 minutes with your child at the beginning of the week charting events and looking at due-dates and activities for the week ahead. For children in third grade through college, it is best to see both a week-at-a-glance as well as a month-at-a-glance. The week-at-a-glance calendar can help with planning checklists and details for the current week. The month-at-a-glance can help with seeing the whole picture and help to plan deadlines for each mini-task that will lead up to completing a whole project by a specific date. Color-coding classes and activities add easy visual organization.
• Set up a designated block of time for daily homework: If your child doesn’t have homework, or finishes early, then he can read, write a letter to a relative, write in a journal, or create flash cards for vocabulary or math facts. You are less likely to hear, “But I don’t have any homework!” in hopes of being freed up to watch television, play video games, chat online, or run outside to catch up with friends.
• Set up a designated area for each child for homework: Be sure that all necessary supplies are at hand to avoid becoming side tracked looking for items. If more than one child is doing homework at the table, consider reducing distractions by creating a “homework cubicle” made out of tri-fold poster board (available from an office supply store). You can get creative by hot-gluing a lightweight cookie sheet to one side and adding magnets that can hold artwork, photos, math facts, and commonly misspelled words. Allow your child to decorate other sections with drawings and stickers. When not in use, it can be collapsed and easily stored.
• Be sure to review your child’s work nightly: Even if your child is completely independent with homework, your diligence will set an example that it is important. When you review his work, be sure to reward his effort and provide a model for corrections and completeness. This is a great time for your child to give you any completed work, letters from teachers, and forms that need to be filled out. Finally, help him to organize his academic materials and backpack, and to put his backpack by the door that he will exit in the morning.
• Buy your child a watch that he can read to increase his awareness and management of time.
• If you are tired of reminding your child to get ready in the morning, write down the list of tasks to get ready. If your child is younger, take a picture of him completing each step (e.g., getting dressed, putting on shoes, eating, brushing hair and teeth, and putting his lunch in his backpack). Slip the list or pictures in a plastic page so he can use a dry-erase pen to mark when he has completed each task. Be sure to provide support as needed until he is independent with the routine. Instead of reminding him to brush his teeth numerous times, you can say, “Go check your list!”
Building organization and independence
In order for your child to be independent with organization and schoolwork, he must have good executive function skills. He needs these skills to effectively manage his attention, set priorities and goals, adapt easily, have self-control, and process a variety of information quickly and correctly. Being unable to keep up creates stress and anxiety when he’s overloaded with information he can’t process, and this eventually affects grades and erodes self-confidence.
For parents, it can feel frustrating and overwhelming because you have to work so hard to support his efforts in order to help him hold it all together before he completely shuts down. At some point, your child will need to be able to do it on his own—unless you plan on functioning as his brain’s CEO for the rest of his life. Since having a weakness in executive function is a symptom of another cognitive problem or disability, it takes the right evaluation to pinpoint the problem (not just provide a diagnosis), and specialized brain training intervention to fix the problem permanently. Your child must learn to create order out of disorder to effectively manage himself in school and throughout life.
You may request a complimentary checklist to identify your child’s learning, attention, behavior, and executive function skills by calling 474-1144 or emailing Office@TheSpeechAndLearningCoach.com. Please indicate if you would like it sent to you via email or direct mail.
Karyn Lutes, MA, CCC-SLP, is a licensed speech-language pathologist, California credentialed teacher, author, speaker, mother of three, and executive director at the Speech and Learning Coach and Brain Boost Academy. Her team transforms ADD/ADHD (drug-free), dyslexia, reading, math, behavior, communication, attention, and learning challenges into success. Contact Karyn at 474-1144 or Office@TheSpeechAndLearningCoach.com. © 2014 The Speech And Learning Coach.com.