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ADHD, Executive Functioning and the Power of Pictures


If you’re the parent of a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you know how hard it can be to get your child to follow directions. When your child can’t focus, she isn’t likely to remember each step in a series and may get distracted long before completing a task. You’ve probably focused on the academic effects of ADHD, but an inability to follow directions at home can make even the simplest tasks a real challenge and strain your family life.

If you’re ready to tear out your hair over giving the same direction over and over, a simple photograph can be a game changer. The latest research on executive functioning provides insight into what’s going on in your child’s brain and how you can help her improve organizational skills. Here’s how to make the research work for you at home.

Executive Functioning: What Is It?

The latest thinking about ADHD is that it is a specific subset of a larger problem: Executive Functioning Disorder (EFD). Executive functioning is the brain’s ability to look at a large issue and break it down into its smaller parts. A long-term research paper is a classic example. In order to write the final paper, a student has to understand the whole (in this case, the end result of a completed essay) as well as how to break it down into its parts (finding sources, taking notes, writing an outline and draft). In addition, executive functioning includes the ability to schedule and pace out this work. It’s a complex — and crucial — thought process.

Closer to home, executive functioning affects all kinds of tasks. For example, your child’s ability to clean his or her room also depends on being able to break down a large task (the clean room) into its component parts: putting books on shelves, folding laundry, making the bed, etc. If your child has trouble with executive function (as almost all ADHD kids do), cleaning that room is going to be overwhelming.

How Pictures Can Help

A major goal for kids with EFD is to help them see patterns in the “big picture” and break them down over time. To do this, it turns out that a photograph of a desired result does more to help your child learn to break down a task into its parts than providing a list of instructions. Though breaking down a task has traditionally been done by giving step-by-step instructions, those only encourage your child to see the small pieces, not the big picture.

Instead, the Visual Schema Strategy can help activate your child’s ability to literally see the big picture and figure out the steps for themselves. To do this, provide your child with a photograph of the desired result to use as a visual cue to figure out how to make that happen.

For example, many kids with ADHD struggle daily to get ready for school, forgetting their lunch or musical instrument. Instead of asking if they have their lunch, try having your child pose for a photo of what they look like when ready: jacket and backpack on, lunchbox in one hand, musical instrument in the other, shoes tied. Post this photo by the door and give just one instruction: Match the picture.

You may have to help your child through it the first few times — encourage her to go from head to toe to figure out what is needed and check their work (a mirror can help). As the mental “big picture” is internalized, the steps will become easier.

This method can be used for all kinds of directions, from cleaning a room to getting ready for bed. Best of all, it helps your child build mental frameworks for the very process of breaking down big tasks, so that the skill comes more naturally both at home and school in the future.

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