Executive Functioning Supports for Homework Success
It’s 7 PM and 9 year old Ashley has been sitting at her desk staring absently at her math workbook for a solid 5 minutes. She sighs, rolls her eyes and begins doodling on the edges of her workbook. The graph and analysis in her math workbook are due tomorrow and she is struggling to start.
Does this sound familiar? This scenario happens on the regular for so many of us with kids who struggle with Executive Functioning. Ashley wants to complete the work and it’s not that the assignment is too challenging, but she lacks the tools and support to get started, and she struggles to envision both the finished product and the path to get there. And, her bedtime is looming, so her brain is tired.
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive Functioning (EF) is essentially the ability to see ourselves moving from Point A to Point B to Point C, or completing tasks from start to finish. EF involves organization, prioritization, task management, self-regulation, metacognition and working memory. The first three elements listed are fairly self-explanatory, so here’s an explanation of the last three.
Self-regulation is our ability to stay engaged, recover effectively after a stressful experience, and navigate challenges as calmly as possible. For instance, a child struggling with a math problem might take a deep breath and ask for help. Or, a child can be both disappointed and still in control when told they can’t go to the pool as planned.
Metacognition is our ability to understand our own individual brains: both how they function best and what sends them off balance, occasionally careening into a meltdown. Metacognition is key for our kids to be able to advocate for their specific needs in school and beyond.
Working memory is the ability to recall past experiences to help inform decisions and perceptions of present or future events. People with EF challenges often struggle to draw on outcomes of past events to inform their negotiation of a current experience, and as a result may repeat the same mistake over and over again. This is why many of our kids forget to turn in completed assignments over and over again.
Understand that EF challenges are NOT behavior, attitude or intelligence issues, but spotlight brain wiring that needs extra support to accomplish tasks. Kids with EF challenges who struggle to manage their schoolwork need EF-building strategies to set them up for homework success.
EF skills are largely invisible; people with robust EF systems typically work out in their heads, often unconsciously, the plans to complete the task at hand. To get to work on time, we work backwards from the desired outcome, knowing by what time we need to shower and get dressed, then see ourselves making lunches and everything else we do to get everyone out and launched for the day. We do this all invisibly. So, for kids with EF challenges, we need to help them make the invisible visible.
Setting up EF Supports
We need to start by shifting from being our kids’ EF system for them (all the constant reminding, packing their backpacks for them, etc.) to empowering them to develop their own EF skills and manage their own tasks. They need to be explicitly taught how to get there, so here are some ideas to get started.
THE WHERE: Collaborate to identify a dedicated workspace to maximize work time
Work together to set up a workspace. Your child needs to buy into the new setup and provide critical insights into what will help them best (and you’ll build metacognition along the way!).
Some ideas to help design their workspace for maximal efficiency:
- Remove distractions: stash devices away; maybe noise canceling headphones
- Visible Clock (and possibly a timer)
- Visible to do list (items broken down into small chunks)
- Tools readily available (pens, pencils, ruler, etc.)
- Clear system for asking for help (workspace near parent?)
THE WHEN: Collaboratively identify the ideal work time for your child
Here’s another chance to teach metacognition: have your child identify when their brain is most focused and works best. If your child is most alert and productive in the morning, help set their bedtime routine so they wake early enough to get their homework done in the morning. Our brains have peak alertness times, so help them identify theirs. Here are a few ideas to work through:
- Predictable routines: regular dedicated HW time, scheduled breaks if needed (+ activity ideas for those breaks)
- Visible schedules: weekly, daily and/or monthly schedules on highly visible calendar; break down tasks into manageable chunks and add them to the calendar
- Regular review of daily/weekly schedule: preview changes to schedules in advance whenever possible
- Scheduled breaks: A five-minute stretch or walk outside can reset a zoned-out brain. Schedule breaks at set intervals, or as needed.
THE HOW: Setting up the conversation
These supports will gain more traction if you collaborate with your child to set up the workspace, timing and structures that work best for them (not for you!). I don’t know about your kids, but mine are rarely excited to talk about homework protocols, so plan to set up the conversation purposefully.
Ross Greene recommends a problem-solving lens, starting with what you noticed (“I’ve noticed your brother can distract you when you do your homework. What’s up?”). Then, share your concern (“My concern is that if you don’t have a good place and time to get your work done, you’ll fall behind and I know that doesn’t feel good for you.”). Next, invite them to problem-solve collaboratively (“I wonder if it makes sense to start with a good place for you to do homework, so you can get it done more easily?”). Collaborate to identify the Where and the When, using some of the suggestions above.
Once you help them identify primary homework challenges, alongside their learning style, strengths and challenges, you can work together to brainstorm possible solutions.
Finding supportive strategies for your EF-challenged child is a work in progress: circle back after a few weeks and assess whether the new system works well, needs tweaking or should be replaced. There are many resources to support kids with their school work, like printable calendars and EF-focused agenda books. Check them out alongside your child to identify what might work best.
Teaching our kids to see their homework challenges as problems they can break down into smaller chunks and solve will begin to help them build the lifelong Executive Functioning skills they will need as they move toward greater independence and adulthood.
This post was written by guest expert Jen Dryer, MA. Jen is a fellow parent coach and consultant who supports families and teachers of neuro-different children. Jen has more than 20 years of experience working with children, families, and teachers as a public school teacher, staff developer, and parent advocate. Her younger son is autistic and has ADHD, and her older son has ADHD. Jen values giving parents the space to reflect on what they really want, while stripping away the “shoulds” and the perspectives of those around them (family, peers, society, etc.). Her desire is to empower parents to connect with their own internal values as they find creative ways to allow their Orchid Kid to feel loved, appreciated, connected, and competent.
To find out whether you're raising an Orchid Kid and to hear more about group classes and 1:1 coaching for parents of neuro-different kids, go to www.raisingorchidkids.com/optin
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