Children are not born with the ability to watch the clock, neatly store binders in their backpack, and get to Point A to Point B without getting sidetracked. These are learned skills that fall under the realm of executive functioning (EF), according to Dr. Jane Hannah of Currey Ingram Academy, a private boarding school in Brentwood, TN, just outside of Nashville. As a special needs school, Currey Ingram takes EF skills of each child into account. Most public schools do not and, because it is not an official disorder, they don’t have to.
If you have a child who struggles with things like getting to class on time and finishing projects, don’t despair. There are many things you can do to help them.
Dr. Hannah asked the staff at the Brentwood-based boarding school for suggestions to share. But first, let’s take a look at what, exactly, EF is. Executive functions, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, are, “…the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” And they are determined by working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. All of these cognitive functions must work together harmoniously for a child to developer age-appropriate EF abilities, which include remaining on-task and organized.
How To Help
Children develop EF skills throughout their lives. While early intervention is best, EF skills may continue to be refined through adulthood. Here are a few ideas:
- Help your child get organized. This starts by cleaning their personal space at home and modeling clutter-free living throughout the house. An excess of “stuff” everywhere is a surefire way to divert their attention. By contrast, when things are neat and orderly, it frees up the brain to focus on what must be done. Once their broader space is organized, look at their homework space and backpack. A middle school child might, for example, need a binder with each class separated by color-coded tabs. A pre-school child may strengthen their EF skills if you provide them with a separate bin for crayons, markers, and other supplies. (Some private schools in Brentwood restrict what students may bring, so check with their teachers if you need to change their backpack or organizational tools.)
- Teach and implement routines. At the Brentwood boarding school, Dr. Hannah and the rest of the staff keep everyone on a routine. At home, you can implement a basic schedule for your child to follow. A weekday might start with a healthy breakfast, followed by school, a snack after, a few minutes of decompression time, homework, dinner, playtime, bath, and then bed.
- Play command games. Younger children can learn through play. A quick game of freeze or Simon Says can help develop EF skills. Drive by the Nashville special needs school, and you might see teachers playing these games with their classes on the front lawn. While it might look like child’s play, fun through learning is crucial in the early years of childhood development.
- Use a visual organizer. A large wall calendar filled in with different colored activities lets your child see their schedule and know when she is coming up on a specific type of task. Use a different color for time slots that involve school, personal obligations (like chores), and special events.
- Encourage creative play. Command games can help your kids learn how to operate within constraints, but imaginative play does much more. Allowing children to take over their environment for a time can enhance emotional development. They can draw their feelings, which might help them work through some anxiety. Self-directed creativity can further stimulate a child’s intellectual growth by letting them explore complex concepts in a way they understand.
- Enroll them into martial arts. Martial arts is a physical activity that focuses on both exercise and character development. A good martial arts program will prioritize individual growth and team goal completion, which illustrates to students that their actions are part of a whole. Perhaps most importantly, martial arts teachers self-control. Understood, the parent organization of GreatSchool, Child-Mind Institute, and National Center for Learning Disabilities, further points out that martial arts can help develop motor skills and is a safe environment to expel excess energy.
- Let them explore music. Music is another activity that assists in motor skill development, but it also teachers event sequencing, spelling, counting, and many other classroom skills. Children with EF delays may benefit from the repetition involved with learning a song; each new piece is taught in chunks, which are repeated and built upon until the child has a whole musical number stored in their head. Day school and boarding school students at Currey Ingram’s Brentwood campus take music classes from their earliest grades through graduation.
Keep in mind that your child’s EF dysfunction may look like any number of other issues. Preschoolers might, for example, have meltdowns over minor snags, such as having pizza instead of burgers for lunch. They might approach you with the intention to ask a question, and then forget what they wanted the moment they have your attention. Older kids may plan a get together with friends at school, but never take steps at home to make it happen. They might also bring home their math book for a science assignment. The point is that disorganization is not always a messy desk and a long list of missed homework. Pay attention to your son or daughter, and ask them if they need help getting themselves “together” in any area. With your assistance, even the most disorganized child can improve their executive functioning skills and gain the internal tools they need to stay on task at home and at school.
Currey Ingram Academy specializes in catering the academic experience to each student’s learning difference. For the last 50 years, the Brentwood boarding school has provided exceptional education to children with learning differences. To learn more information, please visit www.curreyingram.org.