What to do if your child’s teacher flags a “weak executive function”

Parent-teacher conference season will be arriving soon. If you have children in grammar school, that means it’s time to cram yourself into a tiny little chair and get the report from your child’s teacher on their progress.

For some parents, these conferences are bound to raise anxiety levels, especially if the words “weak executive function” are spoken.

The term “executive function” simply refers to those neurologically-based skills that involve mental control and self-regulation. A child with a well-developed executive function can manage tasks like writing a paper or completing homework on time without much difficulty. She has the ability to control her impulses so that she stays focused and attains her goal. Naturally, a well-developed executive function is an important factor in academic success. So if your child is flagged as needing help in this area, it is important to find ways to help them improve.

My son’s kindergarten teacher raised it as an issue to watch last spring. Upon hearing that “diagnosis” and then getting zero direction on what to do about it – I panicked, felt like a failure, worried about the things I may have done (over-stimulation? too much sugar?) to contribute to the problem, paralyzed because I had no idea where to turn for help…and a few thousand other emotions to boot.

Precisely because “executive function” covers so many different areas, from inhibiting impulses to emotional control and planning and organizing, many parents just (like me) do not know how to organize themselves to help their child.

Once my initial panic subsided, my practical side kicked in. I read up on the subject and came away with six things to start implementing right away.

1. Clean Your Home Environment.

Before you focus on what’s wrong with your child, take a look around your home. Do you have clutter zones? Do they have an organized space for doing homework? Is their room a disaster? Go to work as a family on organizing the environment. Banish clutter in bedrooms and in common rooms. Set up a homework station where all schoolwork will be done consistently. If the “noise” from clutter is distracting and stressful for those with robust executive functions, imagine how much more difficult it makes concentration for those with limited ability to self-regulate. The first step you should take is to create an environment that is conducive to focus.

2. Help Them Take Greater Control with Routines.

Once you have zapped the clutter, it’s time to turn your attention to schedules. Is your household going in a million different directions all the time? Does your child have a series of routines that he does regularly? If not, help him improve his control by instituting some basic routines and schedules. For example, you may want to start with a morning routine that is comprised of four or five basic steps: make the bed, throw dirty PJs in the hamper, get dressed, and brush teeth. Keep track of their progress with a sticker chart and celebrate the wins. You can find two great options in our tools section. The goal: get to a point where you can say, “time to go do your morning routine!” and he knows exactly what to do.

3. Reward Them When They Override Their Impulses.

Rather than waiting to celebrate when a project, task, or goal is completed – reward your child for making consistent progress. Point out how far they have come or how much closer the end goal has become because of the focused effort they are putting in. Pay particular attention as they are working and if you notice them controlling impulses, praise them for their attention and effort. Then when they have completed a task, make sure you mention how proud you are of them for sticking with it, working through their temptation to do something else. Ask them how they feel about their ability to concentrate.

4. Let Them Fail to Read Instructions…And Emphasize the Downside.

Instead of expecting your child to obtain skills via observation, let them roll up their sleeves and actually get to work on a task. But be sure to instill in your child that the first step of doing is reading instructions. If your child has a tendency to dive right in without following directions, create a project or two where they will have to do twice the work if they don’t read instructions first. Then point out how much additional work they had to do because they dove in without considering specific commands. The more strongly you can link up the unpleasant side affect of more work with failure to follow guidelines, the better off they will be.

5. Ask Questions, Don’t Give Answers: Muscles are built by action.

Although it may be tempting, do not complete tasks on your child’s behalf or tell them what to do. Instead, step back and let them do the work. If, or when, she gets stuck, use the Socratic method to help them figure out how to get over the bump and move forward productively.

6. Use Incentives to Amplify the Lessons.

The great behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement in bringing about lasting behavior change. So focus on rewarding the progress your child is making rather than punishing them for their failures. Incentives can take the form of praise from you or people around your child, or be more elaborate. You could create a point system, which allows your child to earn rewards regularly. Bear in mind, that for a large number of kids, developing expertise for chores or tasks is good enough, but there are some tasks or chores that do not have integrated enticement.

7. Consider Having Them Checked By a Specialist.

If your child is exhibiting significant challenges in the areas of impulse and emotional control, she may have a clinically diagnosable disorder (ADHD). This disorder occurs in roughly 3-5% of the population. Talk to your pediatrician if you think your child should be tested.

Have any of your children’s teachers ever mentioned an issue with executive function? What did you do?