Executive Function Skills: Job One

Google can only provide so much. For example, no matter how you rearrange key words, searches on the order of “how do I help my gifted kid with a bunch of ADD get through the day with something done correctly and without ruining our relationship or stripping him of much-needed independence” yield no useful information. I don’t need to get my child off the refrigerator, but I do need to find a way through what are becoming more and more discouraging, tear filled days.  He’s miserable, too.

I don’t have ADHD.  I don’t know what it is like to set out each morning with great intentions only to be thwarted by a wandering mind by 10 am.  I don’t recall learning how to take notes, study for a test, or organize my study time.  Heck, I don’t recall ever being asked if my homework was done.  I had (and generally still have) intact executive function skill  paired with a large desire to please.  While the latter has its pitfalls, the pair brought me beautifully through school.  The ADHD mind is foreign territory, despite living with a child with that mind for over a decade.  I’m still on the outside looking in, while he’s on the inside looking out.

I’ve blogged about planners (twice), dropping out of a class, and incorporating study skills into homeschool curriculum.  When I don’t write about what’s not working, I read about what might.  No Mind Left Behind graces the nightstand, along with Brain Rules.  In the cracks, I’ve called professionals of several sorts, picking brains and examining options.  I still don’t know where to start.

Executive function skills include all the brain power we use to plan and execute our lives.  The National Center for Learning Disabilities puts it this way:

Executive function allows us to:

  • Make plans
  • Keep track of time and finish work on time
  • Keep track of more than one thing at once
  • Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • Evaluate ideas and reflect on our work
  • Change our minds and make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading, and writing
  • Ask for help or seek more information when we need it
  • Engage in group dynamics
  • Wait to speak until we’re called on
Without strong executive function, it’s hard to figure out what to do, when to do it, how to start, when you’re finished, and how good the final product is.  This makes school work, especially higher level school work, nightmarish.  Oh, and you still need to process new information and retain information at the same time.  That’s quite a bit going on, especially if you have ADHD.
The basics to developing theses skills makes sense: take one skill at a time, break it down, and practice it. In theory, that follows.  In reality, homeschooling high school, it seems near impossible.  For example, if we decide to start with the skill of finishing work on time, let’s see how many skills go into successfully reaching our goal.  We tried working on this one over the last few weeks, so it’s familiar to me. First, one must the due date somewhere in view.  From there, one must make plans (backward!) to find a starting date or time. This requires breaking the assignment up into parts and evaluating what part happens.  Keeping track of all those parts (the when to do and the where to keep) and evaluating if the final product is indeed complete are next.  Finally, comes our goal:  finishing work on time. That’s a bunch of executive function skills going into make one executive function skill happen.
No wonder we both feel defeated.  Perhaps we started on the wrong skill.  Taking notes, another goal this year, has fared a bit better, although it required other skills to test the target skill.  Taking notes in a vacuum (notes with no purpose beyond pen pushing against paper) is a pointless task.  It is effective note taking we desire, so testing the notes with an actual test seemed reasonable.  My son agreed, and I wrote tests.  There is one pesky problem.  Studying from notes is another skill for which executive function is needed.  Seems we needed to work on that along the way, since the best kept notes are no good unless studied.  And remember the fifth step above, evaluating ideas and reflecting on work?  That’s what a strong student does after taking a test, checking that the questions asked correspond to what the test-taker wrote down (this is a real problem).  Argh.  Another tangle of skills.
The challenge becomes to find the keystone: the skill that helps hold the others in place.  I’m wondering if number five, evaluating ideas and reflecting on work is that stone. Starting there, perhaps insight into the other challenges is possible and real change can occur.  It’s an easy skill to model, which some of the others aren’t. (Organization, for example, is pretty personal — what works for me might not work for anyone else). We’ve talked about it before, and I wonder if coaching that one skill would lead to seeing a need for the others.  While I’ve touched upon self-awareness and monitoring before (yesterday, last year, most days in between), it has always been often in concert with other challenging executive function skills. Perhaps just that one skill could be our keystone.
So, since a wise friend recently told me that no meeting should conclude without an action plan, after a long, teary meeting with myself, I’ve created my list:
  1. Evaluate his outcomes with the lens of self-evaluation and reflection, largely considering where better awareness of process and product would have brought more success. Note:  Keep this from spilling out my mouth.
  2. Model self-reflection and evaluation (in moderation).
  3. Create short lists of questions he could consider before calling a task done or making a decision about how to use his time.  These need to be task specific and brief.
  4. Coach with reminders to check the appropriate card for the task.
  5. Praise copiously when appropriate.  (He does NOT want praise for the obvious everyday stuff and smells saccharine a mile away.)
  6. Re-evaluate efficacy with him each week (at least).
I’m off to make those lists.  Updates to follow.


3 thoughts on “Executive Function Skills: Job One

  1. Hi! I have ADHD, which was undiagnosed until this year – I’m now 30. So the issues you’re struggling to teach are things I had to learn on my own via trial and error. Your teen is so lucky to have you!

    I’m currently in graduate school with straight A’s while I work two part time jobs and run my little family. So I have some basis for believing these ideas might give you a starting point, I promise!

    This is the crux of everything!

    I have color-coded folders in a file cabinet with all my past school work, so if I need to look back – to reference an old paper, find old notes, see how far I’ve come, etc.- I know exactly where everything is. I also have my financial aid, admissions papers, applications, and other related work there.

    My schedule and my class work are tracked on my smartphone. I find this a thousand times better than any day planner, because I can set up “reminders” that make the phone buzz or ring even days before something is due. My rule is: IF A REMINDER GOES OFF, STOP EVERYTHING AND ATTEND TO IT. There is usually a “snooze” option if it rings while you’re in the restroom or something, but the good programs let you set the day and time of the reminder so you get very good at scheduling. It’s a great skill.

    If the smartphone isn’t an option, any phone with the ability to have multiple alarms works. I just prefer having all the data in one place so I don’t get distracted! Plus, you can sync some programs with Google Calendars – so it’s since to your computer, too – or to a Mac app on multiple devices. I love technology.

    I use separate folders for each class at school, but color-coded dividers in a binder also work. Especially dividers with pockets, as teachers always forget to holepunch. You can then set up subsections in each binder section: handouts, notes, tests, homework. Or not. Whatever works.

    Speaking of notes….this is probably different in a traditional classroom setting, but maybe not. If nothing else, maybe you can save this advice for college.

    Teachers give CUES about what’s important. If you can learn what those cues are, and write those cues down, you have pretty solid notes.

    The easiest cue is WRITING ON THE BOARD. Sounds obvious, but I see a lot of students miss it. Write down any point the teacher thinks is important enough to put on the board. Then write down all the (verbal) information they give about that idea that you want to remember.

    The trickier cue is EMPHASIS. It’s harder to catch when you have ADHD because it’s all verbal. The teacher will (sometimes unconsciously) stress their words, repeat a phrase, spend a lot of time on something you don’t care about. Red flag! Write that down. It’s going on the test.

    I’ve seen people do fancy note-taking with multi-colored pens for certain points, or special structures; if it helps, great. They always distracted me when I tried that.

    To study notes, sit down with the book AND the notes. Bounce between them. Walk. Pace. Stand on your head. Talk out loud if it helps. Make sure you understand the concepts and focus on THAT, not on controlling any ADHD-ness. If the tv or radio needs to be on as white noise, have them on. This all applies to doing homework, too; our brains work better this way, and deserve not to be constrained now like they have to be in class.

    I touched on this a little with the scheduling and reminders, but you talked about struggling to break down all the parts of a task, etc. Here’s what I’ve done:

    I looked back at my past work and figured out about how long it takes me, on average, to do certain tasks. THIS IS KEY. About how long does it take your teen to research a paper (just research, nothing else)? How long to write a short paper – say, 2-3 pages? A term paper – say, 10 pages? How long to read a novel? How long to do calculus homework? Etc. Make your teen figure this out.

    Now look at the syllabus. (You do have one, right?) Starting in high school on, we were given a syllabus listing all the homework, papers, and projects we have for the term – but a good starting point is just to plan for the week.

    Look at everything scheduled, and have your teen put in the due dates. Now, bases on the estimates, enter 2 reminders: the “good planning” reminder and the “last chance” reminder.

    The “good planning” reminder lets someone with ADHD complete everything on their list at a well-balanced pace and still have a life. It’s stress free!

    The “last chance” reminder is the absolute latest the person can complete all the critical tasks on time, with NO spare time. It’s like controlled procrastination.

    Then YOU step back. No matter what, you’ve given the tools to make sure everything will be done by deadline. It’s up to your teen to learn – and yes, most will learn the “last chance” way a few times – that following the schedule is a good idea.

    Here’s what that does: they start checking the schedule on their own after a while to see what’s coming up. And in that way, planning and deadlines and organization becomes more efficient and more independent.

    How long does it take? Well, it took ME 24 years to get a workable system down. But I didn’t have anyone to help me; they just punished me anytime I missed something. Hopefully, though, I’ve given you some ideas that will help.

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you! I can’t wait to share this with my son. He’s really at a low point with these skills right now, and I don’t seem to have much credibility as a source for help. (Hey, I’m a 42 year old mom, and he’s a 14 year old boy — go figure.)

      Hearing from folks who have “been there, done that” makes a huge difference to me. Thanks for sharing.


  2. The ‘little lists of things to check’ are a godsend for my ADHD Aspie 13yo son with pretty much non-existent executive function. We’re currently working through IEW’s “Student Writing Intensive” program, which we’re loving, because it’s all about 1) summarizing, but according to very specific and fairly rigid rules and steps to follow; 2) organization, again according to specific guidelines and models; and 3) checking work for quality, again with a specific checklist to go through. Sentence opener in each paragraph? Check. “-ly” word? Check. Lists of ‘banned words’ (ie go, said, thought, good, boring stuff like that) with lists of brainstormed alternatives.

    Everything is checklists and well-defined steps, and he is loving it and THRIVING. And where last year he was still making barely point-form summaries for, say, his science, he is now writing 3-page stories with creative language, logical plots, and loads of great structure. He’s been a ‘reluctant writer’ and quite ‘behind’ for years, so this has been amazing to see. 🙂

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