When children experience a “gap” between having strong skills in some areas of functioning and failure to live up to such potential in other areas of functioning, considerable feelings of frustration, anxiety, and even shame can result. We see this often in our work with individuals of all ages, and regardless of the weakness—be it a learning disability, speech/language problems, social challenges, motor difficulties, or all of the above—the consequences can have a significant impact on a child’s personality and psychological development.
In some cases, what is commonly referred to as “executive dysfunction” is at the root of the aforementioned gap between a child’s ability to exhibit proficiency in one area and their inability to reach that same potential in another area. Indeed, the phrase “executive functioning skills” can seem overly technical so we like to break it down in to more practical terms—“executive functioning skills” refers to a key set of cognitive skills needed to “execute” tasks and demonstrate our skills. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
The ability to…
Persist at tasks
Attend to tasks
Monitor one’s own performance during tasks
Transition from one task to another
Regulate emotions before/during/after performing a task
In other words, your child’s math skills may be intact but their performance at school may not reflect that due to weaknesses with attention, planning, or organization skills. That is, they may have completed their math homework with success but—failure to place the homework into the folder, to place the folder into the backpack, to place the backpack into an easy-to-retrieve location before leaving for school, or to remember to submit the assignment to the teacher—has prevented them from demonstrating their skills. Alternatively, they may have difficulty regulating their emotions during challenging assignments at home or at school, resulting in decreased attention to the material (e.g., tendencies to race through it or not check their answers) and decreased time spent practicing, retrieving, and learning it. Or they may have trouble planning/organizing their time during tests so that, once again, their final grade does not reflect their actual skill level or their potential had they been better able to complete the test within a time limit.
So how can we, as parents, maximize our child’s ability to demonstrate their true abilities and, in turn, assist in the development of their overall self-competence and self-confidence?
GAIN INSIGHT, PROBLEM SOLVE, & PLAN
Model for your child how you manage the path towards self improvement. Specifically, walk your child through the process of problem solving areas of difficulty by helping them (1) gain insight into aspects of executive functioning skills that could be improved and then (2) develop a specific plan to address those challenges.
1. Take a look at the list of executive functioning tasks posted above and identify which are areas of strength and which are areas of weakness for your child, as well their impact on your child’s ability to perform tasks independently at home. Also, talk to your child’s teacher to find out how well your child is demonstrating these same skills within the school environment.
For example, does your child have trouble managing their time throughout the day (e.g., when getting ready for school, when completing their homework, when taking a shower?). Does your child have trouble monitoring or organizing their belongings throughout the day? Does your child have difficulty starting tasks without constant reminders?
If appropriate for your child’s developmental level, talk to them about this list of strengths/weaknesses, and how they can benefit from acknowledging and understanding them. Help your child understand that everyone has both strengths and weaknesses, and that striving to be “good at everything” is not only unrealistic and impossible, it is a mindset that breeds only disappointment in and frustration with their own self. Acceptance of any weaknesses they may have with aspects of executive functioning is the first step towards making their lives easier and more efficient so they can spend more time engaging in activities they enjoy each day. Increased insight into their own behavior can not only improve your child’s ability to monitor and then improve such behaviors, it can also increase your child’s “buy-in” and commitment towards making positive changes in their functioning.
2. Once the areas of concern have been identified, there are two primary ways to address them: teach the skills directly and/or modify the environment in which the skills are being performed.
When teaching an executive functioning skill directly, work with your child to determine the final goal they are expected to reach (e.g., improve their initiation and completion of self care tasks) and outline the specific steps they should take to reach it (e.g., compile a list of specific self care tasks they are expected to accomplish each day). Know that the more explicit details you provide for your child, the easier it will be for them to meet goal expectations. Next, monitor their performance of the task by providing reminders when necessary and by providing positive reinforcement. If your child is having trouble achieving one of the steps (e.g., cleaning room), break that step down into smaller, more manageable steps (e.g., alter the step so that initially your child is required to clean one corner of the room and then, over time, build towards cleaning entire room). Provide feedback and consistently ask your child for feedback on what is and is not working about the approach/plan towards improving the skill. Together, you and your child should problem solve aspects of the approach that are not working. Once again, continue to provide “labeled praise”/rewards that specifies exactly what your child is doing well/improving upon, which will help reinforce it. Over time, gradually reduce the amount of supports you are providing for your child, including reminders and prompts to initiate, persist at, and complete the targeted tasks.
Aside from supporting your child in making behavioral changes, you can also consider modifying your child’s environment to increase their ability to demonstrate improved executive functioning skills. This type of plan can take on a number of different forms depending on the targeted skills. For example, to improve your child’s attention skills and stamina during homework, an initial step is to provide them with a clean work space that is free from visual and auditory distractions. If time management is an area of weakness, provide your child with greater access to digital clocks throughout your home so that everyone can better monitor tasks and meet deadlines. Weaknesses in planning and organizing can be addressed through a number of different external support systems, including family calendars and labeled storage bins for personal belongings.
If difficulties persist, seek out a professional to help identify the factors underlying the weaknesses and empirically-validated, targeted interventions to address them.