How to Help Children Who Have Difficulty with Executive Functions

Children with special needs often struggle with executive functions. For parents whose children face these challenges, it is important to understand what executive functions are, the common warning signs of problems with them, and how learning specialists can help children who face this difficulty.

Executive functions are cognitive processes that control other cognitive processes, connecting past experience with present action. Executive functions are crucial to children’s daily activities like dressing themselves or doing chores, and difficulty with executive functions will especially impact a child’s schoolwork. We all use executive functions for such actions as making plans, keeping track of time, making corrections while thinking, reading or writing, and engaging in group discussions. Executive functioning is what permits us to keep track of more than one thing at a time, holding on to information until it is appropriate or useful for it to be applied.

Children who struggle with executive functions will often seem to be disorganized. Thy may have trouble planning projects and have little understanding of how long they may take. These children may have trouble memorizing information, and when telling a story may have trouble keeping events in sequential order. In addition, a child may have problems with working memory, for instance being unable to remember a phone number while dialing it. There is no one test to identify problems with executive functioning. Educators, psychologists and others may use a variety of methods to identify such problems, including careful observation, tests and trial teaching.

If a difficulty with executive functions has been identified, there are many learning tools that educators and parents can share with children to help them with organizational skills.

Four Learning Tools Available:

  • Checklists: One tool that helps with executive functions is using a checklist. If a child has trouble conceiving of or keeping track of the steps necessary to accomplish a complex task, then a checklist can be a tremendous help. Instead of struggling to understand what step should be done next, a child can simply move through the list. Checklists can be useful at school or with the tasks of daily living, such as getting ready for school in the morning. It can be especially helpful to set time limits for each task on a checklist, as children with executive dysfunction will often not be able to judge how much time each step should take.
  • Calendars and Plans: Because struggling with executive functions make planning difficult, it is all the more essential for children to be introduced to the importance of writing down a plan. Frequent use of a calendar and writing down homework assignments are habits that should be encouraged, and that will take time and energy.
  • Encouragement: Children who find organization challenging often do not understand why being organized is important and may become frustrated with planning. However, encouragement and repetition can help children develop these skills, and establishing a reward system can help them see the benefits.
  • Routines: Developing a routine is also important for children with executive function problems. Doing homework at the same time every day is an especially useful routine, especially with older children who may prefer to do homework when they feel like it. This leads to procrastination and problems with the work. A child who has trouble planning and getting organized may not see that putting off a task will have bad results, and encouraging a routine is one way to help.

Difficulty with executive functions is a common problem for children with special needs, but if the challenge is identified and addressed, then there is a lot that parents and teachers can do to help. If you believe your child’s executive functioning difficulty is becoming debilitating, be sure to discuss this with his or her teacher or section 504 or IEP team and document concerns in writing.

For more information about our legal services for families with special needs, visit www.specialneedsnewyork.com.

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