Try These Ideas To Work On Your Child’s Executive Functions This Summer!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from lots of parents who, upon reaching the end of the school year, want to see a different experience for their child-and for themselves-next year.

And chances are, they would like to see their child improve their executive functions.

The executive functions-there are several, although different researchers have different ideas on how many-are the parts of the brain that allow intentions to turn into actions. They can be divided into the “thinking functions,” such as time management and organization, and the “doing functions,” including task initiation and emotional control.

In ADHDers, the executive functions are impaired (although not necessarily all of them, or to the same degree). Additionally, research has shown that ADHD kiddos can be 2-3 years behind their neurotypical peers developmentally, which translates into a lag in the development of the executive functions.

Simply put, when it comes to the executive functions, your ADHD child struggles.

And not only does your kid feel that they are behind, or panic not knowing where or how to start their assignment, they also have to deal with the many-and I mean many-negative messages they get from teachers, coaches, other kids, siblings, and relatives, about their inability to just DO THE THING.

As a parent, I’ll raise my hand here, and say that I, too, said things like “You’re so much smarter than this,” or “Why do I have to tell you a million times??”

It can be downright upsetting.

But, there are ways to both help strengthen those pesky executive functions, and/or to accustom your child to various strategies that can support his weaker skills. And you don’t have to wait for homework or book reports! Here are a few:

1 – Assign chores.  Being given household jobs is a great way for your child  to feel that you trust them to be responsible, and that they are contributing to the upkeep of your home. However, for our ADHD friends, chores should be structured in a particular way. 

  • Saying “clean your room” really isn’t specific enough. Break the chore down to smaller tasks, and depending on your child’s age, consider giving them responsibility for some of the subtasks first, rather than the whole thing. 
  • Also, how often do you think this should take place? It is better to have small daily tasks than one large weekly job.
  • Set a time of day to accomplish these tasks, with an alarm (not you) announcing the time. This should take place BEFORE fun activities that are tough to pull away from.
  • Use this time to do a chore or two yourself. This is called “body doubling,” and seeing you also working can keep your child on track. 
  • Finally, profusely thank your child for helping with the household responsibilities. Consider rewards (small things, like a trip to the ice cream parlor, or a slurpee)-we all get paid for our jobs, why shouldn’t your child??

2 – Work together to plan a trip or outing. Deciding on a place to go, and then working together to identify, prioritize, and execute different tasks is a great way to not only practice using executive function skills, but to enable you and your child to see where the gaps are, and what kind of support might be helpful. For example, if one of the tasks is to map out the trip on Google Maps, and your child has forgotten to do it, setting a reminder might help-and might stick in your child’s brain as a way to remember tasks.

3 – Keep a family calendar. Time blindness is very common for ADHDers (kids and adults). Putting events and responsibilities on a calendar makes it easier for your ADHD kiddo to see time. It will also help with transitions, as the events of the day are readily available.

4 – Allow for unstructured time – WITHOUT electronics. When your child has free time to play ball, read, draw, run around the woods-whatever they like to do-they are flexing their executive function muscles. Putting together Legos takes attention, organization, working memory, and emotional control. Pretending requires flexibility, attention, and non-verbal working memory. And the best thing about play is that, for the most part, you are not involved. They are strengthening their EF skills, and having fun, all on their own.

5 – Play board games. Family board game nights are so much fun! And without even realizing it, your child will be getting executive function training. Following directions, waiting their turn, developing a game plan-all of these involve the executive functions. And it’s such a wonderful way to spend time together.

This is just a sampling of activities that will help your child to put their executive functions to work, and learn what kind of support is helpful, all at a low pressure time of year. Give one or two a try!

Leaning Forward When You’d Rather Lean Back

I learned to ski as an adult. To say I was afraid is to delve into understatement. I was terrified. But I was dating a Vermonter at the time, and when in Vermont….so I took ski lessons.

I wasn’t half bad at it, to be honest. But the one part of skiing that I just couldn’t wrap my mind around was that, while I was hurtling down an icy slope with limited ability to stop, my instructor kept yelling, “Nose over your toes! Lean forward!!”

Lean forward? Was he nuts, or just some sort of sadistic weirdo? When you are going downhill, your instinct is to lean back-to slow down the action, to pull away from what, as a beginner skier, looks to be your death spiral. I resisted the urge for a long time-and while I was never going to be an Olympic skier, leaning back kept me from being a better skier than I was.

Young children, in general, can be difficult at times. They run around, they jump on your bed, they feed their dinner to the dog. Children with ADHD have the extra oomph of being impulsive-what would happen if we smash the TV to let the people out-as well as having difficulty settling in for baths, storytime, meals. 

And as a parent, after several hours, all you want to do is lean back.

So you put on the latest Paw Patrol episode, intending to just take 15 minutes to regroup and maybe use the bathroom. But then the peace and quiet is so intoxicating..and suddenly, 15 minutes has turned into 3 hours.

Now, we’ve all had days where, for everyone’s sake, the above scenario is not just necessary, it’s recommended. And I am in no way criticizing anyone for it. Been there, and have done it. However, when 3 hour TV breaks become the norm, and yet your child is still driving you mad, it might be time to lean forward.

What does this mean? It entails saying to your child, “Hey, Bobby. We need to chill a little bit, but I still want to play. What would you like to do for the next little while?” And then….and here’s the hard part…doing what they ask.

It’s hard because no, you really don’t feel like pretending you’re a farm animal, or dressing up, or playing 20 card games. You have laundry to do, and a work call to make, and your client will not understand if you yell “Uno!” during your Zoom call.

But giving your child that little bit of time-even just 15 minutes-to call the shots, and to have your complete attention-and that means no phone in hand-can do magical things. 

It changes the pace. It pauses the frenetic action. Most importantly-it tells your child, in ways that words can’t, that they are a priority. And that you enjoy them. And while that isn’t going to mean that they will stop feeding green beans to Fido, what it will do is strengthen your bond with your kid. It’ll help you understand what and how they think. And it will make you a better parent. Which is what our kids deserve.