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Identifying Executive Function Challenges: A Practical Guide for Parents


In recent years, “executive function” has become a buzzword in educational and parenting circles. While it’s positive that this important concept is gaining attention, the term is frequently misused. Executive functions are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. These skills are needed to help your child reach their potential and achieve independence. This guide aims to clarify misunderstandings and help you distinguish between typical behaviors and those indicating executive function deficits. 

Signs of an Executive Function Deficit In School:

If your student has an executive function deficit, here is how it might present in school (remember these behaviors are typical for all students, but we are focusing on abnormally frequent displays of these behaviors): 

  • Struggling to stay seated: Your child may find it hard to remain seated, frequently needing to fidget or move around.
  • Disorganization: It can be difficult for them to find their materials, whether physical items like pencils and books or digital files on their school’s learning platforms.
  • Missing Details: They might skip over instructions, make mistakes, or leave incomplete assignments.
  • Procrastination: Your child may often turn in assignments late or not at all, finding it hard to get started and see tasks through to completion.
  • Challenges Starting an Assignment: Your child may be overwhelmed when starting tasks because they struggle to break assignments into manageable parts. This can lead to frustration as tasks seem too daunting to begin.

What to Do if You Suspect EF Challenges in School:

If you receive frequent reports of EF challenges in a school setting, consider these steps: 

  • Meet with Teachers: Schedule a meeting with your child’s teachers to discuss their observations on classroom behavior and performance. Then, provide your observations on strengths and challenges outside of school. 
  • Request and Evaluation: If necessary, ask for a formal evaluation through the school to better understand your child’s specific challenges. Become familiar with assessment processes, which vary by school and state. This assessment is used to identify areas where your child may need additional support.

Based on the evaluation results, the school team may recommend eligibility for support programs, such as a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). These plans can offer accommodations and interventions tailored to enhance your child’s executive functioning skills in the school environment.

Signs of an Executive Function Deficit In Daily Life

EF challenges also appear in everyday activities, making daily life more stressful and straining the family dynamic. Sings of a deficit include: 

  • Poor Time Management: Your child might be consistently late or struggle to finish tasks on time.
  • Losing Items: It’s common for them to misplace personal items like keys or a wallet.
  • Avoiding Monotonous Tasks: They may show little patience for boring or repetitive tasks.
  • Trouble Prioritizing: Deciding what to do first can be overwhelming, leading to a disorganized approach to daily tasks.
  • Difficulty Creating and Maintaining Routines: Without established routines, disorganization, attention, and nearly all executive function skills worsen.

The Impact on Family Life

When a child faces EF challenges, it doesn’t just affect them; the whole family feels it. You might find yourself repeatedly helping with tasks, trying to get out of the house on time, and walking on eggshells to prevent a meltdown. Over time, this can lead to frustration and resentment. The daily stress of managing these challenges can strain relationships, causing tension among family members. Here are the strategies that the research recommends to improve executive function skills at home. Remember, these take time, and patience is needed. 

Strategies for a Smoother Family Life

  • Teach and Model Planning: Make it a habit to hold regular family planning meetings. Our favorite is the 5 p.m. Sunday sessions to review the upcoming week’s schedules and responsibilities. This helps everyone know what to expect, from tasks to be completed to practice times.
  • Clear Expectations: Children with executive function deficits may struggle to understand their responsibilities. Clearly outline tasks and associated rewards or consequences. For example, completing homework might earn extra time with friends, while not finishing it could mean they need to attend voluntary office hours. Setting these expectations in advance helps clarify what is needed and incentivizes your child to follow through.
  • Consistent Routines: Establish and maintain structured routines that make daily and school tasks easier for your child to manage. Identify one routine that could be created or strengthened to improve a consistent challenge.
  • Breaking Down Large Tasks: Help your child manage larger projects by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps. This will keep them focused and reduce procrastination and anxiety by making tasks seem more achievable.
  • Process-Oriented: Emphasize the importance of the process rather than just outcomes. Encourage focusing on the effort, like studying effectively rather than the grade or sticking to a workout routine instead of just the fitness goal. This approach promotes a growth mindset.
  • Use Visual Aids: Use charts or visual schedules to outline daily tasks and responsibilities clearly. Providing instructions visually can help prevent misunderstandings and ensure that everyone knows what to do without having to be reminded verbally.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Look for opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate even the smallest successes. Recognizing these achievements can boost your child’s confidence and reinforce desirable behaviors. It will also strengthen your relationship and promote a supportive family environment.

Understanding executive function challenges can feel daunting for parents, but recognizing and addressing these issues is needed for your child’s development. By identifying signs in both academic and daily life, you can take proactive steps to support your child. With patience, collaboration with educators, and consistent support at home, you can help your child improve their executive function skills and reach their goals.

Parenting a child who struggles with executive function can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Let Untapped help!

For More: 

Activities Guide: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children

What Executive Function Problems Look Like

Executive Function Strategies for Your Child

Practical Strategies to Support Executive Functioning at Home

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