Ahhh, executive functions. We love them, and when they are lacking we long for them. Children with AD/HD struggle to develop vital executive functions such as organization and planning. Students with learning disabilities and struggling learners (officially identified or not) often have some degree of executive dysfunction.
Any experienced teacher can look at a student’s notebook and tell if that student is able to organize and access the information and materials they will need. Intelligence plays a part in academic success, sure, but the organized student typically comes out on top. Executive functions help students to show what they know. If they have completed an assignment but can’t locate it the teacher has no way to assess their performance. A very bright student who forgets about an assignment or fails to complete the work even though he has the capacity to do so will be out-performed by an average student with the executive functioning skills to complete tasks accurately and on time.
Children with learning challenges work harder and longer to get results and deficits in executive functioning impact all areas of life, not just the academic realm. Consider, for example, the child who forgets he made plans with one friend and is off with another when the first friend comes calling. Or the child who struggles with time management and is chronically disorganized causing her to be late for practice again because she can’t find her mouthguard.
Some children just naturally seem to develop executive functions as they mature. Others need much more direct instruction than our modeling alone provides. In the picture above, you can see the rudiments of Josh’s attempt to develop some executive function skills. He has written out the date and the tasks he needs to accomplish each day. He put a check mark next to completed work. Josh’s system is far from sophisticated, but it reflects his burgeoning attempts to incorporate some organization into his day.
Is Josh’s method acceptable? It wouldn’t be what I would choose, but Josh is a unique individual. I had shown Josh various organizers and examples that I would use but he had to find something that worked for him. The picture shows what he came up with, and although there are many things I would do differently the idea was for Josh to find a system that worked for him.
It’s too bad executive function skills can’t just be absorbed by spending time with people who excel with them. The good news is that executive skills can be taught. It may take awhile, but they are so important that it’s worth the investment of time to help your children develop in these areas. Experts say that executive function skills continue to develop into the twenties, but don’t wait to start working on them until your child is already floundering. Help your young child to develop strategies to keep track of his possessions. Assist your older children in using calendars and organizational aids. Help your child write a list of what needs to get done for the day. When executive skills don’t come naturally, even the most primitive progress is just that – progress.