If your child has a learning disorder, you've probably heard about Executive Functioning (EF) Skills. The word "executive" in this context actually didn't come from the business world. It came from the neurosciences, referring to brain-based skills that allow us to effectively execute (start and complete) tasks and solve problems.
I first learned about EF skills as a high school educator but didn't truly understand them until my son was diagnosed with ADHD. Simply put, ADHD and EF skills live in the same part of the brain--the frontal lobe. ADHD creates deficits in executive functioning skills.
Attention is one area of EF skill--along with the areas of emotional regulation, flexibility, inhibitory control, initiation, organization, planning, self-monitoring, and working memory. Often thinking about ADHD as EFD (Executive Function Deficit) helps one make more sense of the challenges our children face.
My son was unofficially diagnosed in the middle of 4th grade, after another homework meltdown. My husband and I just looked at each other and finally knew. Our child had struggled with reading since kindergarten and was a highly reluctant reader. But he was reluctant in other areas, too.
I didn't see any sign of a reading disability. I also wasn't getting bad reports from school. Just the opposite--his teachers loved him. They loved his big smile and warm personality. They couldn't understand why I was so concerned. And I couldn't understand why they weren't.
My husband and I took him to a psychologist for assessment, and we received an official diagnosis and report by the end of 4th grade. Moderate ADHD Combined. The day he started medication, he came home from school and said, "Wow, I was smart today!" He acted like a child who just got his first pair of glasses and could now see the board. He could finally focus his attention.
The good news is that EF skills can greatly improve with practice. Yes, practice. And it's important to note that executive functioning has nothing to do with IQ. It doesn't matter how much you know or how smart you are. Without these skills, you cannot apply your intelligence to daily living.
You can be a "gifted" person, even a genius, and not be able to apply your knowledge without developed EF skills. At some point, things will fall apart.
Parents often don't realize that they function as their developing child's frontal lobe. I certainly didn't think of it in those terms. Many EF coaches suggest that parents take a quick assessment on-line to see what their EF strengths and weaknesses are--and what they may be modeling at home. I found that really did help. In many ways, we had a lot in place already.
However, my son's inflexibility tends to be my biggest frustration--the thing that will drive me to a meltdown. I'm flexible and spontaneous, which you'd think would be a good match. But my spontaneity (and happiness) can take a big hit when he can't shift gears and move along with the day. So, we began to work on that together.
Coaches report that practicing one small task (that means one EF skill) at home every day for 5-10 minutes can produce great results. Every time your child practices an EF skill properly, his brain builds a greater neurological groove for that skill. Repeated practice can improve a skill deficit, perhaps even becoming a skilled strength over time.
The opposite is also true. The less you practice a weak area, the weaker it becomes. If temper tantrums and emotional regulation are a problem, giving into it chronically will only deprive your child of the opportunity to strengthen his emotional control. It's not going to improve on its own. If organization is not one of her strengths, then again, you want to practice and build up that skill.
Next month, we'll walk through some sample sessions, so you can see what this kind of practice looks like. I hope you'll join us!
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