Executive Functioning: Strategies for success

Executive Functioning: Strategies for success

“By targeting an EF intervention, we improve learning outcomes,” said Dr. Meg. “Rather than throwing a blanket of strategies at your child, we can create an individual academic toolbox specifically designed to support where your child has weak and strong executive functioning skills.”

-Dr. Meg Murray, Be Alright Tutoring

We hear a lot about executive functioning in relation to our kids and academics, but what is it?

Here’s an example: A seven-year-old student was struggling with phonics. Parents and teachers were going over the material painstakingly and the student didn’t improve.

Once tested for executive functioning skills, the resulting testing report showed the child had problems with organizing information. Because the child couldn’t organize the information around phonics, drilling the material wasn’t the best learning method for this child.

After executive functioning testing, parents were provided with a report showing different strategies to help this student better organize information, making it possible for phonics to make sense.

Be Alright Tutoring wants you to feel educated and informed when it comes to all the academic and psychological lingo, especially the lingo around learning strategies.

Everyone, to some extent and at some point, has executive functioning issues. For kids diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or other learning challenges, executive functioning challenges may be more intense.

Because executive functioning is a set of skills we all share, however, all children can benefit from learning how to manage and build upon these skills.

Overview: What is EF?

Executive functioning, or “EF,” is a blanket term referring to the processes of our brain, which allow us to organize information, finish tasks to completion, focus on a particular task or topic, plan, and more.

“Think of EF as the brain’s control center,” said Dr. Meg. “When children or adults have challenges around attention, for instance, these EF skills may present obstacles to success,” she added.

“We had a parent who simply had a parental hunch something was up with his child,” said Dr. Meg. “She was getting passable grades, but the effort was enormous. Her dad could see something was off because it took so much effort to get a decent grade.”

After EF testing, this student, her parents, her tutor and her school received specific guidance on how to adjust to her EF strengths and weaknesses.

“In some cases it’s a matter of making a simple adjustment around organization or adding memory retention strategies,” said Dr. Meg.

Why EF matters

Success in school can be particularly frustrating for someone with EF issues. Think of a school assignment as a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. For someone struggling with EF, the puzzle appears a single shade of grey. If this child has attention challenges, attempting to complete the puzzle may feel something akin to putting together a puzzle with strobe lights and loud noises competing for attention.

A starting point for the project doesn’t make itself obvious to this person, especially so with the myriad of distractions. Plus, there’s really no inspiration to complete the project, because the reward seems insignificant. In addition, the idea of starting the puzzle totally overwhelms the person with EF difficulties. Where do you start when all the pieces appear to be the same, and there no way to prioritize pieces?

Given this example, it’s easy to understand why many kids, even with the best intentions, become frustrated and give up midway through school assignments.

Example of EF learning strategies

EF planning challenges: A student struggling with EF skills may have difficulty knowing how to prioritize the steps for any project. Maybe your child is given a book report with an additional art project attached. The child may gravitate to the art project before ever reading the book, because this part of the project feels more stimulating. Don’t judge. Just help them navigate a reasonable list of tasks in order.

Working with kids with EF challenges to map out big projects is a huge help. Take 30 minutes to an hour and plot out the key points for the project, in order, with your child. Or, ask the teacher to provide clarity. Don’t leave anything out.

For instance, with a book report project, don’t leave out the step of actually attaining the book. Adding in the simpler steps will leave your child with a sense of accomplishment. Make sure each step is given a “Done” sticker or check mark. If the book is a long one, break the chapters down into increments of 5-10 on the plan.

Don’t forget to add a reward for a job accomplished.

Teaching Executive Functioning Skills in the Classroom

an emtpy classroom

With the many challenges children with EF face, it can be challenging for teachers to implement curriculums that can cater to everyone’s needs. However, there are a few EF strategies that teachers can use to help their students. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Develop and Practice Routines

Routines are essential for student success, but especially for those that suffer from EF. To help them do better, create a routine out of everything you do.

So if you have assignments that need to be submitted or need someone to clean the board at the end of the day, form a routine around it. But make sure that as you make these routines, you practice them throughout the year to maintain consistency.

Post a Daily Schedule

Creating a daily schedule will not only benefit you, but it will help your students too. Having a posted plan can help keep students organized and engaged throughout the day. 

Sometimes there’s a lag throughout the day when a boring subject comes up. But if students see a schedule, their mood can change if they see a topic they like coming up. Your schedule doesn’t have to be perfect, but creating a rough overview of the day can help drastically.

Related: Tutoring Students with Learning Disabilities

Make An “Organization Time”

Kids and adults with EF have a tough time with organization. Although they may learn some skills to help them organize better, it still may not be enough.

It would help if you dedicated some time at the end of each class to let students pack up. That way, students won’t have to rush and prepare their things for the next class and lesson. With ample time, they can remain relaxed and be better organized. 

Teach Executive Function Skills In the Classroom

An excellent way to teach executive functioning skills in the classroom is through your classroom content.  You can use projects and tests as opportunities to talk about skills and strategies, like organization and time management.

There are plenty of chances for you to include EF content while you’re teaching. Do your best to be creative and find ways to implement it.

Reduce Classroom Distractions

Distractions can be tough to manage in a classroom, but they may not come from only students. Sometimes visuals that you have around your classroom can create more distractions.

So if you have any dazzling displays or artwork around the classroom, it might help to remove some of them to limit distractions. You may not want to remove all things, but even a small amount can make the difference for a student’s attention span.

Give Your Kids Breaks

children playing during their break

We all need breaks. But they are vital for those with EF. Remember, their brains are working extra hard to keep up with the lessons, so they may also tire out quicker than others.

Giving breaks will allow all your students to rejuvenate, leading to a more productive class once you resume.

Create a Classroom Office

I’m sure we’ve all forgotten a pencil, pen, or paper going to school one day and had to scurry around looking for supplies. Remember, kids with EF aren’t the best organizers, meaning they could easily end up in this situation.

So to combat it, create a classroom office with supplies that students may need from time to time. Although you want to encourage students to be responsible and bring their own tools, you also want to make sure that no one is discouraged because they forgot something.

Play Games

There will be days when it’s hard to implement EF skills into your lessons. So instead, play some games. Use games like “Freeze” or “Simon Says” that can help strengthen a student’s EF skills.

Not only will the students have fun play these games, but it will also relieve some pressure off of you.

Executive Functioning Accommodations in the Classroom

As we’ve mentioned above, teachers can use various strategies to help a child with EF. But other accommodations can be given to support students too.

The parents of a student suffering from EF can apply for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), in which a student has a modified education curriculum developed around their disability.

The program includes:

  • Goal setting
  • Learning in environments with the least distractions
  • A performance review
  • Technological assistance

IF a student doesn’t qualify for IEP, a teacher can always make informal classroom accommodations like making seating agreements or assigning that student with simpler tasks.

Alternate Treatments for Executive Functioning

little girl reading on her tablet

Remember that children who suffer from EF will need extra help even if you made accommodations to support them. So here are some other ways that you can provide help:

  • Read the assignments out loud
  • Use colors to differentiate between tasks
  • Do a movement activity to help kids stay loose
  • Have multiple workstations 
  • Allow the use of fidget toys

These are just some of the other ways that you can help accommodate a student with EF. You could also identify their more prominent deficiencies and focus on solutions tailored to those.

Related: What are the Benefits of Tutoring: A Complete Guide 

What to do if you suspect EF problems?

Ask for support. If you see your child struggling with memory, organization, project planning, or you simply suspect something is going on beyond normal academic snags, ask for help.

Be Alright has aligned with a remote EF testing program designed to sort out where your child struggles with EF. The testing requires an hour of time from your home.

“If we test for it, we can create the appropriate intervention,” said Dr. Meg. “So, for instance, if someone is struggling with attention or planning and prioritizing, we can focus on building those particular skills,” she explained.

According to Dr. Meg, few school systems have the resources to test for EF. While your child may have an ADHD diagnosis, for instance, the diagnosis probably doesn’t narrow down the weakest EF skills.

“By targeting an EF intervention, we improve learning outcomes,” said Dr. Meg. “Rather than throwing a blanket of strategies at your child, we can create an individual toolbox specifically designed to support where your child has weak and strong skills.”

Sage Reading can provide academic support through tutoring to help with homework and improve academic performance. Contact us today to get started.

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