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How to Prioritize Executive Functioning Skills for Home Practice

All executive functioning (EF) skills take practice - the simple act of pointing out to your child or teen that they are leaving their personal items strewn around the house, or have yet again left a weeks worth of dirty dishes in their bedroom will do little but frustrate you and allow your child the opportunity to develop the well rehearsed skill of tuning you out.

On the other hand- the child that you see today (the one who has called you to drop off their homework three times this week, the one with 10 missing assignments that are sitting in their binder) with focused training from mom and dad, can and will develop new habits.

In order for your child to abandon disjointed routines of forgetfulness and disorganization, you too must commit to teaching and reinforcing the actions you want to see. The first step- tapping into your motivation, and theirs. Motivation: as a parent you are motivated to teach your student skills such as table manners, how to say please and thank you, to hold doors for strangers. You are motivated to teach your child to shower alone rather than take a bath, to do their laundry, to walk the dog, and how to use their own key to come in and out of the house without you. Your motivation comes from the desire to have your child perform all acts of daily living independently, as you envision yourself in 10 - 15 years time, with an empty house. On the other hand, if you hold a desire to care for your child for the remainder of their teenage years and make room for them to live permanently in your home well past their 20’s, you may have different motivations, in which case, teaching executive functioning skills and using reinforcement strategies may not be an area for which you wish to concentrate. If you are, however, among the first group of parents- those that are not planning to provide housing for your children for the long haul, you must keep your motivation for independent living in mind as you embark on your journey of teaching, re-teaching and reinforcement.

First, take a moment and think about the ins and outs of daily life in your household. Think about the first three behaviors that come to mind when you envision of your child and how those behaviors may be interfering with the intricately planned schedule of your day, the consistency you wish were possible, and the pleasant dinner time conversations you are currently convinced only occur on the Brady Bunch. When you visualize your day, what behaviors cause you to be late, disrupt plans, or make you feel like your child or teen will never be able to make independence as a teenager or adult a reality. Write down those three behaviors on a piece of paper. Now, look those over and think: which one of these behaviors, once they are replaced with the behavior I do want to see, will get my child closer to my goals for their future? Keeping in mind that teaching and reinforcing these skills also requires time and consistency on your part, what are you most motivated to teach? Prioritize by writing the numbers one two and three next to each; put that paper aside.

Second, envision your child or teen. Think about the things in their daily life that most motivate them: electronics, games, activities, time with friends? What things already naturally occur in their daily lives that they find rewarding? Do they have a certain food they like to eat? Do they enjoy sweats or dessert? Do they like to be the first of their siblings to do an activity? What naturally occurring privileges occur in your house that are part of  the daily or weekly routine? Is there movie night, special dinner nights, trash day, chores, friends who come over after school, bike rides, time at the park, trips to get ice cream? Now, make two columns on a piece of paper. In the first column write down the top three motivators for your child that are typically given as contingencies (you may currently threaten to take them away for poor behavior or low grades, you may also use them as incentives, or you may not do either of these things but you recognize that your child or teen would have a difficult time living without them). In the second column, list the naturally occurring privileges or routine activities that occur in your schedule (these are not contingent, but may be seen as fun or may be nice things you do for your children simply because you love them).

Put your list of prioritized behaviors with your two column list - you will need to refer back to these often.

Lastly - make a list of your own challenges with executive functioning. Are you consistently late, do you misplace your keys? If you needed to find your last water bill, would you know exactly where it is? Is there a set bedtime and routine? Is there a set morning routine that allows for everyone in the house to leave with all of their belongings? Is there a set time for homework and chores? Is there a cleaned off space in the house for homework? If the answer to any of these questions is no- there is work to do before teaching can begin. Finally, walk outside your house and enter the way your children enter as they arrive home from school. Walk through the house the way that they would: if there is not a designated place for shoes, jackets, sports equipment, technology, keys and backpacks you will now need to abandon your child’s EF behaviors that you previously prioritized and dedicate the next month to organizing, routine building and modeling for your children. Executive functioning, like all other skills you have taught your child up until this point, are modeled and reinforced by your behavior.

Already a family with consistent routines, expectations around organization of personal belongings, modeling of cleanliness, and exemplary models of executive functioning? Great! You are ready to develop your teaching plan and begin practice. Stay tuned for upcoming how to’s.

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