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Teaching & Practicing One Skill at a Time

Using scaffolding and pairing to overcome obstacles

· Executive Function

As part of our series on how to manage executive functioning weakness at home, we have previously implemented two things: first- making a list of the top three executive functioning skills you would like to see your child build, and second - developing your own executive functioning skills in order to be a model for your child or teen.

We have discussed the importance of modeling as well as the understanding that all EF skills need practice; so, with this, you have agreed to let your child navigate their school day and home life with increasing independence. We have agreed that without the opportunity to try and fail, your child will never understand the why behind what skills are needed to meet goals.

It is now time to move on to the structured and scaffolded practice that must be implemented in order for your child or teen to gain the supported repetition of skill to mastery. It is essential to keep in mind that we were not born with intact executive functioning skills, we developed them over time, and that development involved a great deal of practice, but most importantly, it involved trial and error.

As we move through this series together, it is important to keep in mind these four core principles:

  1. Every experience is a learning experience.
  2. Success is not a requirement and is often a hinderance to growth.
  3. Every road block is an opportunity to devise an alternate route.
  4. Mild discomfort is a necessary fuel to persist.

Whilst setting out on your journey to train and reinforce executive functioning skills with your child, you will need to refer to those principles frequently, especially in your moments of frustration; especially in the moments where you are leaning down to pick up their socks on the floor instead of asking them to do it themselves. Additionally, there are two teaching principles that must be continuously at play, refer back to these at the onset of planning each new skill to teach.

Scaffolding & Pairing: Principles for Teaching

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): which is defined as the difference between what a learner can do with help and what a learner can do without help.

What this framework outlines, is the understanding that one cannot learn a new skill unless it is bridged from a skill they have previously mastered.


My child has called from school four times this week (it’s now Friday and I have decided to leave my cell phone at home while running errands in order to get through my to do list without interruption) to tell me they have forgotten: their lunch (twice), their math book, gym clothes (three times), and a permission slip (for this I broke every traffic law in the book to, panting, hand off a crumpled pink slip of paper to a teacher, who seemed very unimpressed by my sprinting abilities, as a group of 60 7th graders boarded a bus). While a little extra exercise is always welcome, and I never run from a challenge, I have also come to the very overwhelming conclusion that my 7th grader is actually a two year old trapped in a 12 year olds body and I have fooled myself into thinking they are navigating their life successfully. Where would they be without my willingness to bend to their forgetfulness?

I set out on a mission to take back my day and to teach my daughter to manage her life on her own. I made a list:

  • being prepared for school each day,
  • being prepared for homework at the end of each day, and 
  • remembering to hand in materials while at school.

We needed to accomplish these three things first.

Using the zone of proximal development and keeping the four core principles in mind, I broke each goal down until I found related skills she had already mastered and others she could learn through scaffolding:

Being prepared for school each day:

  • She can: pack her bag independently.
  • She can: read a calendar.
  • She needs to: Write out a calendar for each week on Sunday.
  • She needs to: Read the calendar before bed each night to then pack her bag with needed items for tomorrow’s activities.
  • She needs to: Accept the consequences at school for being unprepared - no more bailouts.

Being prepared for homework at the end of each day:

  • She can: Read her agenda book.
  • She can: Pack her bag.
  • She needs to: Hang a sign in her locker as a reminder.
  • She needs to: Use her agenda book as a check list as she packs up her bag.
  • She needs to: Double check for all items as soon as she gets home and return to school on her bike to get needed items that may have been forgotten.
  • She needs to: Not get screen time if there is unfinished homework.

Remembering to hand in materials while at school:

  • She can: Open her “hand in” folder.
  • She can: Sit at her desk in each class.
  • She needs to: Open her hand in folder as soon as she sits at her desk.
  • She needs to: Hang a reminder in her locker.
  • She needs to: Not get screen time if she comes home with items not handed in.

I then implemented the second principle for teaching and practice: pairing.

Pairing: which is exactly what it sounds like it is - the pairing of one automatic, habituated skill with a non-automatic skill that we are working to habituate. Always reach for your phone when you leave the house, but constantly forget your sunglasses? Pair them together. Does your child put shoes on before leaving the house, but forget their lunch? Pair them together.

To allow my daughter to get the practice she needed in developing and then habituating the three skill areas described above, we paired mastered skills and habituated routines with new skills and unhabituated behaviors. It’s a guarantee she will need to sit down at a desk when she is in a classroom - we paired that with taking out her agenda book and hand-in folder. She never leaves school without going to her locker (how else would she gossip with her friends about that new science teacher who never cracks a smile?), so all visual reminders went there - the last stop on the forgetful train.

Aligning with simple human nature, we also built in a safety net called an adversive. After all, it is our desire to avoid discomfort that keeps us persisting towards a goal, no matter how trying. Imposed adversives for my daughter were simple - no screen time. All other adversives were naturally occurring in her environment and I needed to be the one to allow her to experience them - so, I needed to make my own commitment to refrain from providing reminders, bailing her out by sprinting with permission slips, and allowing her teachers to impose their own consequences for missed work.

We will expand on how the four principles play out in your day-to-day next month.

Questions? Need clarification? Send us a comment or question through our contact form.

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