Friday, February 26, 2010

Executive Function

Executive function is a complex symphony of brain activities responsible for the “project management” parts of school and life. Generally, successful completion of any complex project requires the ability to break the project into a series of discrete steps, developing a plan for completing each step, and then executing the plan. Students whose executive function is not fully developed typically have trouble creating or executing a step-wise plan.

It can be difficult for schools and families dealing with a student with executive function difficulties. Whether or not a student has specific areas of academic struggle, if he doesn't write down his assignment, bring home his book, or hand in his homework, he will not succeed (or often even pass) the course. In some ways, dealing with executive function issues can be easier with younger children. For a second grader, having the teacher check to see that the assignment is written down, that the homework packet is in the student's backpack, and that the parent checks that the assignment is completed and back in the backpack, isn't generally a major problem. For a high school student, this kind of supervision can be uncomfortable for student, teacher and parent and can be humiliating to a teenager struggling for autonomy.

So how can parents help a student who is unable to get through the day without creating obstacles to his own success? One way to help is by establishing routines. This can take time but constant repetition of routines and procedures can automate behaviors even when a student struggles with serious executive function difficulties. For example, we know of one student who does a "lump check" every time he moves from one place to another -- home to school, class to class, and then home again at the end of the day. He pats his pockets to make sure he has his basic tools: wallet, keys, iPod, pen, cell phone.

Another student has a "launching pad" by the front door of his home. Everything he needs to bring to school is set up the night before on the launching pad (with help from his parents) and he knows that he needs to check this spot before he goes to bed. At first, he worked with his parents to create a check-list (books, homework for English, homework for sciences, gym clothes, etc) so he had to consider any item he might require. Eventually, the list was not needed, but he still used the hall table to set out his supplies for the next day. Every student and family will need to find their techniques for building competence in this area, but there are some basic guidelines that may help:
  • Strategies need to be developed in conjunction with the student. Rules imposed from above tend to be less effective and may be a trigger for rebellion.
  • These issues aren't going to be solved quickly. Patience is part of the process.
  • A conversation with the school or teachers about reinforcing organizational strategies can be very helpful.
  • Strategies need to be age appropriate so students are able to master the strategies without being embarrassed that they need help.
  • Positive reinforcement can help. Keeping checklists by the door and rewarding consistent improvements (like handing in homework for two weeks in a row) with small but desirable rewards can help even teens to put strategies into practice.
It's a tough balancing act to teach students organization while fostering independence. Parents will find themselves being too hands off sometimes and being too involved at others. But students who struggle with executive function won't improve their skills without practice and organizational strategies. It won't be easy, but the importance of these skills can't be ignored.

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