Executive Functioning can be a critical area of concern for, but not limited to, children diagnosed with ASD. The good news is you can do things to improved Executive Functioning, as it continues to develop until about age 25.
Believe it or not, we are already starting to prepare my third grader for middle school in terms of improving his Executive Functioning skills.
What skills are affected by executive functioning issues?
There are several key skills involved in executive function. But your child may not struggle with all of them to the same degree. Executive skills include:
- Impulse control: This is your child’s ability to stop and think before acting. Impulsivity can be a symptom of ADHD. Kids who have trouble with impulse control may blurt things out. They may do unsafe things without thinking it through. They’re likely to rush through homework without checking it. They also may quit a chore halfway through to go hang out with friends and have trouble following rules consistently.
- Emotional control: This is your child’s ability to manage her feelings by focusing on the end result or goal. Emotional control and impulse control are closely related. Kids who struggle with emotional control often have trouble accepting negative feedback. They also may overreact to little injustices. They may struggle to finish a task when something upsets them.
- Flexibility: This is your child’s ability to roll with the punches and come up with new approaches when a plan fails. Kids who are inflexible think in very concrete ways. They don’t see other options or solutions. They find it difficult to change course. They may get panicky and frustrated when they’re asked to do so.
- Working memory: This is your child’s ability to hold information in her mind and use it to complete a task. Kids who have weak working memory skills have trouble with multi-step tasks. They have a hard time remembering directions, taking notes or understanding something you’ve just explained to them. If your child has trouble with working memory, you frequently may hear, “I forgot what I was going to say.”
- Self-monitoring: This is your child’s ability to keep track of and evaluate her performance on regular tasks. Kids who have trouble self-monitoring lack self-awareness. They can’t tell if their strategies are working. They may not even realize they have strategies. They often don’t know how to check their work.
- Planning and prioritizing: This is your child’s ability come up with the steps needed to reach a goal and to decide their order of importance. Kids with weak planning and prioritizing skills may not know how to start planning a project. They may be easily overwhelmed trying to break tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. They may have trouble seeing the main idea.
- Task initiation: This is your child’s ability to get started on something. Kids who struggle with this skill often have issues with planning and prioritizing too. Without having a plan for a task, it’s hard to know how to start. Kids with task initiation problems can come across as lazy or as simply procrastinating. But often they’re just so overwhelmed they freeze and do nothing.
- Organization: This is your child’s ability to keep track of information and things. Kids with organizational issues are constantly losing or misplacing things. They can’t find a way to get organized even when there are negative consequences to being disorganized.
It may not be easy to sort out whether your child’s difficulties with executive functioning skills are related to another condition. You may be able to help your child even without her being diagnosed with a disorder. The goal is to identify your child’s specific areas of difficulty and find strategies that help. Here are some things you may want to consider trying at home. Try introducing them one at a time so you can see whether it has a positive effect.
- Make checklists. Listing the steps involved in a task will make it easier for your child to see how to get started. It also may lessen her anxiety around planning. Checklists provide a visual reminder of where your child left off if she got distracted. You can make checklists for everything from the tasks she has to do before school to how to make a sandwich.
- Set time limits. Your child may struggle to budget time for an activity and also for each step of that activity. On your checklists, consider giving a time estimate for each step. If your child doesn’t read yet, you can put some inexpensive kitchen timers around the house. Set them for the amount of time your child should be spending on everything from completing a math sheet to brushing her teeth.
- Use planners and calendars. Not all planners have to be on paper, which is a good thing if your child has trouble keeping track of items. You can put up a big family calendar somewhere and give your child her own colored marker. For older kids there are free or inexpensive apps and time-management software that can help.
- Explain yourself. Children who are inflexible thinkers or who have difficulty with emotional control don’t always take feedback well or see the point of learning new ways to do things. Try to spell out why it’s important to learn a new skill, or how it may save time and energy in the long run. And if the answer is simply, “Because that’s the way it has to be done,” don’t be afraid to say that.
- Let your child explain, too. Just because kids have trouble with executive functioning skills doesn’t mean their way of doing something isn’t valid. If your child’s method doesn’t make sense to you, consider taking the time to ask why before saying it has to be done differently. It may actually be an inventive approach that works for your child. The more successful strategies she comes up with herself, the better!
Improve Executive Functioning With COLOR!
We have utilized COLOR to achieve so many developmental milestones over the years. For visual learners it is such an amazing tool and it’s application is endless! Try these ideas out and find your own new ideas. Feel free to share it with us below.
Our school therapists are extremely committed and collaborative in the effort to support our son, and we are eternally moved and thankful. We are going to again use COLOR to code subject folders. As my son moves to the middle school, he will have to juggle changing classrooms, assignments, lockers, etc. Using COLOR to code folders, binders, notebooks, and even in note taking is a way to help him organize his materials.
COLOR coding lists, notes, and emphasizing out important information in text and directions (highlight, underline, or circle etc) is vital to improving my son’s Working Memory.
View my article “Autism Children Are Visual Thinkers” for more tips.