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Executive Functioning Explained

Learn more about executive functioning and executive skills and how your child's school performance can be affected by an executive function disorder.

When your child is having trouble in school, it can be heartbreaking to watch. You want what’s best for them, of course, and knowing that six to eight hours of the day are difficult is hugely frustrating — especially when you’re not sure how to help. It can be equally dismaying to hear jargon and acronyms thrown around if you’re not sure what they mean.

One of the big terms you’re likely to hear — especially if your child struggles with organization and following directions — is executive functioning. It’s become a hot topic in education as brain science has shed light on how children grow and develop. It also holds promising new teaching and learning techniques that may help your child learn to learn.

What Is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is the set of skills that allow you to control your behavior, regulate your emotional responses, organize information and make plans. Think of it as the brain boss: Just as a business executive monitors workers and makes sure things get done efficiently, this part of your brain is in charge of how to complete tasks. It’s crucial for both classroom behavior and for learning, which is why many kids struggle with both.

The good news is that no one is born with fully developed executive functioning skills. Instead, they’re learned over time. That means that, with focused practice, your child can develop these skills — and reap the benefits as they become able to perform better in the classroom.

Creating Schema

Psychologists have long known that learners create schema, or categories, of information. This is easy to see with small children first learning to talk. As they point to four-legged animals, they may call them all a "kitty," but they eventually learn to differentiate between cats, dogs and bears based on other characteristics. This highlights the process of creating schema and endless connections and subcategories.

Students with executive functioning weaknesses often have trouble creating schema and connecting the parts to make a whole. This can feel like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. It’s possible, but it’s much more frustrating and time-consuming not to know where things are headed.

Putting Schema to Use: How to Give Directions

All this brain science has a very useful application for parents. When your child struggles with following directions, it’s likely because he can’t figure out how each direction is connected to each other — or to the outcome you’re looking for.

Take, for example, the daily chaos of getting ready for school. You can shout out directions like "Put your shoes on!" and "Don’t forget your lunch!" every day for a month, but your child isn’t internalizing what to do to get ready — and every morning is a struggle.

Solve this by taking a photo of your child when she is ready: shoes and jacket on, lunchbox in hand, backpack over both shoulders. Post this near the door, and simply remind your child to match the photo to get ready. The photo acts as the schema, and your child is now able to figure out what actions are required to get ready by looking. She’s figuring out how the mysterious puzzle pieces of "shoes!" and "backpack!" fit together in the category of getting ready.

The beauty of this approach is that it doesn’t just help your child get ready faster. It also helps him begin to internalize schema and break things down into steps, all of which help boost working memory — not to mention confidence and competence. Give it a try, and check back for more tips on helping a child who struggles with executive functioning or contact us to learn more about The Brain Balance Program and executive function disorders.

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