Executive function skills (EFS) encompass a broad array of important managerial capacities. EFS originate in the prefrontal cortex, which directs and orchestrates the rest of the brain to get something done. They include paying attention, selecting, focusing, initiating, inhibiting, shifting, monitoring, modulating, correcting, pacing, sequencing, anticipating, evaluating, prioritizing, organizing, and planning.
To encourage the development of planning skills, teach your child to make choices and set up his own visual schedule. For example, if he has several homework assignments, let him decide on the order he does his worksheets, and within reason, where to put in breaks, and what to do for his breaks.
You can even start smaller, in a more limited field. Say your child loves to stim by tapping a stick. Within one worksheet assignment, consider letting him decide where to put in short tapping breaks, so that if he has ten math problems to do, he might plan a break after the third and sixth problem. That way he will be more likely to persevere in working without stimming till each of his breaks. He also gets to practice how to plan, initiate, focus, and inhibit, while harnessing the self-motivating power of having more control.
If it was hard slogging getting through those ten problems with only two breaks, help him learn how to evaluate his own planning. “How did that go? Ah, so you could get through three problems without a break okay, but getting through four was very hard?” Give him the opportunity to learn how to modulate his plans. “What do you think you could do about that for the next set? Have a tapping break after every third problem? Sounds like you know what you need- great self-awareness!”
Make planning ahead (anticipating) and putting away (organizing) part of the whole process of doing tasks or assignments. “What will you need for school tomorrow in your backpack?” Work in the practice sequencing. “Let’s go through your day tomorrow. What will you need for math? (workbook and pencil box) Reading time? (storybook) Recess? (snack)”
Teach your child to organize as he goes, instead of letting things accumulate. “Great that you finished that whole worksheet! So where does it go?” “Let’s see the work you brought home. Do you think you’ll need those papers in class again? What should we do with them? Where does this go?” Many parents color code their child’s bookcovers and notebooks, one color per subject. They place a box or shelf by the front door for things the child will need to take to school the next day, so there’s less to gather up at the last minute. The child is given a specific quiet place to do homework, with a drawer for supplies and a shelf for books, and is taught to create a place for everything, and to put everything back in its place.
Teach your child how to make a checklist of tasks and then rearrange the order so he learns how to prioritize. Have him check off boxes or put his word/icon labels of each activity in an “All done” envelope so he learns to monitor his own work completion. That’s the beginning of self monitoring skills. Organize his work in consecutive drawers or file folders so the environmental set up suggests and reminds him of the next step. Let him experience shifting his attention as he moves from drawer to drawer on his own. Once he finds the exercise easy, add some spice to the game with a timer and reward so he gets to practice how to pace himself. You can make use of such a set up to create an independent work station containing several file folders of maintenance activities, meaning activities that practice mastered concepts that you want him to retain (Chapter Seven), which you can rotate and vary. That may be your child’s first step toward learning how to study on his own.
Create worksheet exercises in which the goal is to find and correct mistakes you include intentionally, so your child learns how to check his work. Once he gets good at this, next time he looks at you inquiringly to see if he did his math problem correctly, direct him to think of correcting it himself saying, “It’s great that you want to know if you got the answer right. I know someone who’s really good at checking and correcting.”
Help your child practice using all these EFS with all the support he needs. If you feel overwhelmed, write down specific EFS goals the same way you set academic goals, and work on mastering a few at a time. (See sample at end of this subsection.)
Teach EFS the same way you teach everything else. Gradually reduce your scaffolding as the child becomes more able. Once your child can perform these EFS with minimal prompting, continue to give short, direct cues throughout the day on when to exercise them. “Look over here. I have something important to show you.” (learning readiness) “Pay attention, your teacher said this will be on the test.” (learning readiness) “Don’t start eating until everyone sits down.” (inhibition) “Timer rings in five minutes. Put your things away.” (pacing, anticipating, organization) “Put it back where it belongs.”(organization) “You’ll need to work quickly, as there’s not much time left.” (pacing) “Remember the order of the steps. What’s next?” (sequencing) “Does yours look like the model?” (monitoring, checking) “What’s the order you need to do things to get this task done?” (planning) and “Which of the tasks is most important?” (prioritizing)
Once the child gets used to performing EFS throughout the day on cue, make the cues subtler. Come up with single word substitutes or better yet gestures or hand signals. Then bridge each skill by making the cues more indirect like, “This will be on the test. What should you be doing?” (Looking at what you are pointing at, paying attention). “We need to be polite and start at the same time, so what should you be doing?” (Waiting till everyone sits down at the dinner table before eating.) “The timer rings in five minutes. What do you need to do?” “Where should you put that?” (Back to its usual place.) “We have ten minutes left. What can you do to help you track the time?” (Set timer.) “Oops, are we forgetting something?” (Say if you’ve paused expectantly, and the child skipped the next step in a sequence.) “What could you do to see if you did it correctly?” (Check your work against the model). “That’s a lot of assignments. What’s the best way to go about it?” (Prioritize in order, schedule.)
A good rule of thumb is to use the Socratic Method. Whenever possible ask, don’t tell. If the child is talking too loudly in the library, instead of saying “Use your indoor voice,” try “Look at all the people studying. Do you study better when it’s loud or quiet?” Use every success and failure to help your child understand the purpose of working on executive function skills, so that they become goals for the child, not just yours. “Wow! I’m so glad you did half of your book report last weekend. That way you finished up in time for us to watch a movie together before bedtime.” “Oops! You had your homework in your backpack the whole time, but couldn’t find it to turn it in. Can you think of a way to make it easier to find next time?” The more the child owns the problem and comes up with the solution himself, the more he will internalize executive function skills.
It is common for parents to find that even after teaching these executive function skills, and seeing their child perform them under observation, the child won’t use them on his own. A job well done might be enough gratification for some children to practice EF skills independently. But many children also need a contingent rewards system which offers tangible rewards for performance. So consider putting up a chart listing a few EF skills at a time, and have the child check them off as he does them in return for extra screen time minutes, time with you playing a game, or whatever else he finds motivating that you agree upon. Over time, teach him to create these kinds of reward systems for himself, as a general self-help strategy to use to meet his own goals.
Sample of Executive Function Goals for Peter Tran 2014-15
|Planning, evaluating, adjusting, pacing, inhibition||Peter makes the effort to follow a timer schedule to restrict picking up sticks on walks, so he is less enslaved to that intense sensory need.||Set up his own schedule of increasing minutes of walking before picking up a stick, adjusting the timer up or down according to ability, and creating his own reward or shrinking reward system|
|Planning, organizing||Peter occasionally remembers to grab his bib or earplugs before outings.||Peter will pack his swim bag.|
|Organizing||Peter is learning how to save work on the computer into files.||Peter will learn to copy and save important work from notes to pages and sort work into different subject files|
|Evaluating, planning, organizing||Peter often resists putting used favorite clothes in the laundry basket, but occasionally changes his mind and makes a big effort to dump a favorite item in the washer.||Peter will learn to do a sniff test or # of days worn test to put dirty laundry in the laundry basket, and select and put out fresh clothes on his bathroom shelf|
|Self-monitoring||Peter occasionally independently toilets and puts his clothes on in the morning.||Peter will use a check-off list to do his entire morning routine and bathroom routine, including wiping, flushing, dressing, hand-washing, and tooth-brushing.|
|Self-monitoring, correcting||Peter occasionally corrects a misspelling or goes back to capitalize a letter himself.||Peter will edit one line of writing himself for each assignment.|
|Prioritizing, ordering, organizing, initiation (self-study), shifting||Peter makes choices as to which assignment he wants to do first.||Peter gets three maintenance “homework” tasks like a worksheet of a couple of questions each of math, grammar, and reading paragraph/comprehension fill in the blanks to put in the order he wants to do them, complete them, and put them in a homework notebook with subject dividers.|
Like all brain development, learning executive function skills takes time. Try not to get too frustrated about it. We provided virtually all the executive function for Peter, organizing, pacing, and monitoring him, for years as we worked on the fundamentals of engagement, communication, and cognition, before we started introducing EF skills as goals in themselves. As your child grows more capable in the fundamentals, whenever you see the opportunity, such as planning a picnic or deciding on the order of doing homework assignments, try to work on them. If you intentionally and persistently do so, you will see progress. Just try not to get frustrated if progress is slow. You can’t rush brain development. Modulate your own expectations. It happens at the child’s own pace.
 So what do you do if your child grabs the stick and stims before finishing the third math problem? One idea is to make a checklist of 3 reminder boxes. Each time your child stims before the agreed upon time, remind the child of the contract, have him put the stick down, and check off a box. If all three boxes get checked off, explain to your child that he needs more help in inhibiting the stimming, and move the stick farther away, or even out of sight to reduce access.
 This is especially common in those children with comorbid attention deficit disorder (ADD), which is associated with a 40% decrease in measures of dopamine receptor and transporter activity in the reward centers of the lower brain. (Vulkow, 2009) For these children, a top-down approach of just teaching EF skills isn’t enough to get them to use them in real life. A bottom-up approach is necessary concurrently in which you supplement their deficient internal reward centers with external rewards.