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!