Executive Function… Can It Just Function?

Welcome to our Back-to-School Blog Series! This week, we are featuring a variety of professionals who are sharing their expertise to help make the back-to-school transition a little bit easier for students, parents, and educators. Today’s guest blogger is Haley Dunn, owner and counselor at Bella Vita Counseling.

Does your child forget to bring their homework home? Or maybe the homework made it home, but the science book came home instead of the history book. Do they easily lose track of time? Do they have a bunch of papers shoved in their backpack, but they swear they know where everything is and ‘it’s organized’?

If you answered, ‘Yep, sounds like my kid.’ Then they might have executive functioning issues. But what really is executive function?

The brainy stuff:

  • Working memory: Our working memory helps us hold on to information and use it.

  • Impulse control (self-regulation): Our impulse control helps us think before we act; helps us with emotional regulation.

  • Flexible thinking: Flexible thinking helps us ‘shift gears’ and think about things in different ways.

What does that mean to you as a parent of a student with executive functioning issues?

Executive functioning skills do not develop linearly, so it can be difficult to figure out when it is typical versus an issue affecting their daily functioning. Some concerns you may have noticed in your student:

  • An inability to pay attention

  • Losing track of time or getting hyper-focused on an activity

  • Regulating emotions- BIG emotions and reactions

  • Initiating tasks or getting easily distracted by other tasks

  • Overall organization and planning

If your child is experiencing some of these symptoms there are ways to help support and better develop their skills at home.

How can I help my student?

Visual schedules are one way to help manage time and expectations. They allow students to see all the necessary tasks for the morning, what to place in their backpacks or the schedule for after school. Visual schedules are a great way to prompt students, keep them on task and hopefully reduce frustration for the student and the parent. For ideas click here.

Other great ways to help your student organize and stay on task are: using a backpack with multiple compartments, timers (especially visual), or organizational apps on the phone (such as Evernote), etc. There are many way to help develop executive functioning skills and there are different suggestions depending on the skill you are looking to help them improve. For a full list of ideas click here.

Is this typical? How do I sort that out?

It is important to note that some executive functioning skills may be developmentally appropriate, such as, a teen who has trouble managing their time or remembering their homework or adolescent that is very emotional. If your child is having persistent trouble in these areas and it is affecting school and home life then it might be more than just their age or development.

Well, does this mean my child has ADHD?

Maybe, but executive functioning impairments can cross into many different learning issues and mental health areas, so it is important to speak with a professional about your concerns. School psychologists can help you get started on the necessary supports your child will need at school, such as an IEP or 504. Look to professionals, like a mental health counselor or psychologist, outside of school to help with identifying symptoms, to work on skill building and symptom maintenance.

About the Author

Haley Dunn is a licensed professional counselor and is the owner of Bella Vita Counseling in Beachwood, Ohio. She is passionate about helping teens with learning differences, ADHD and autism find individual success at home and school. You can learn more about Haley by visiting her Psychology Today page: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/haley-dunn-beachwood-oh/460836