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Demystifying Executive Functioning

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With the school year now well underway, and parent/teacher conferences right around the corner, the term “executive functioning” may be something that parents start to hear more often. So what exactly does it mean when someone says your child is struggling with executive functioning skills? In short, this is a broad term that describes those skills that allow for planning and organization. Often individuals who struggle in this area have difficulty keeping their room clean, have trouble figuring out how to start a large project or assignment, have messy backpacks, binders, and lockers, and struggle to complete and turn in quality assignments on time. Unfortunately, executive functioning struggles are generally pervasive and usually affect multiple areas of life. However, there are ways that you can help!

While you can’t control all environments of your child’s life, you can take several steps to make your home a place that will help strengthen your child’s executive functioning skills. Also, modeling good executive functioning is a great way for your children to learn how to strengthen their own skills in this area.

  • Provide structure and organization. A chaotic environment exacerbates executive functioning struggles. Keeping common areas free from clutter can help everyone at home feel more relaxed and in control.

  • Make schedules visible! Children are better able to plan ahead and feel prepared when they know what is coming up and they have discussed it with their parents.

  • Have visual representations of your expectations. For example, take a picture of your child’s room when it is what you consider to be clean. Then, when you ask them to clean their room, show them the picture and go through your expectations step by step. For some children, it is beneficial to break this down even more. You may need to start with one part of the room before moving to another part. Separate photographs for each part will help focus them in on where things go and what it should look like.

The school environment is the other place where children typically struggle with executive functioning, and while you cannot change all systems that are already in place, there are ways that you can partner with the teacher to help your child.

  • Make your child a partner in this process! Doing everything for them inhibits their independence and sense of responsibility. Partnering with your child is also a great way for them to learn how to advocate for themselves and for them to know what the expectations are.

  • Use a color-coding system. Many classrooms already have this in place, so check with your child’s teacher to find out what they do. Having a notebook and folder for each class that has a designated color (science=green, history=red, math=blue, etc.) will make it easy for your child to quickly grab what they need. They may need a sticky note with these colors in their locker as a reminder.

  • Use a calendar system! This can be an old fashioned paper assignment book, or it can be an electronic calendar if they use laptops or iPads in school.

  • Help your child with long term planning. If they get assigned a long-term project, sit down with them and help them create mini deadlines for themselves. You can also suggest they do this with the teacher. Make sure these deadlines get written in their calendar and follow up with your child to make sure he/she is on track! As a side note, sometimes teachers set these up when creating the assignment, so be sure to check with them first.

  • Do a weekly clean out of their binders/folders/lockers. This will help prevent clutter and will help everyone stay on top of assignments.

Finally, having enough time to adequately prepare for each activity is beneficial in helping children who struggle with executive functioning. Oftentimes, this means gathering all materials the night before.

  • Place all school bags and books by the door the night before (zipped in the bag, ready to grab and go!)

  • Pick out and lay out clothes the night before

  • Have sticky notes next to the door for materials needed for each extracurricular activity. This will help them remember that they need their cleats, uniform, and water bottle for their soccer game!

If executive functioning is an area that is challenging for you or your child, consider bringing them to Art It Out to meet with Dana who specializes in helping children and adults with these skills. Many times, there are systems and strategies that can be put in place to help relieve stress for the individual and entire family. Please visit or call 770-726-9589 for more information.

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