What is executive functioning? It is the part of our brain that controls how we think, plan, do and stop. How we think through something; how we plan to get something done; how we execute the task, and how we stop ourselves. For most of us this task is unnoticeable and our brain just does it without us thinking twice about it. For others, our brain has difficulty with executive functioning, so, for example, our morning routine doesn’t just happen and we need many reminders every day to brush our teeth, make our bed and eat breakfast. Sometimes this disability can also present a lot like ADHD or ADD, but its not. ADHD/ADD and executive functioning go hand in hand because many of the symptoms of ADHD are problems with executive function. However, there is one big difference between the two. While ADHD/ADD is an official diagnosis, a lack of executive functioning refers to a weakness in the brains self-management system. In fact, many kids with learning issues, not just ADHD, struggle with some of the same skill deficits.
Executive functioning takes place in the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are connected with many other brain areas and coordinate the activities of these other regions. This is also the part of our brain that handles our self-control and our working memory, or, our ability to take one concept and move it to another concept., i.e. the stove is hot at grandmas’ house and because I got burned on it, that means the toaster might be hot as well. This part of the brain also controls the ability to begin and complete a task.
What can we do to help our child who is struggling with executive functioning issues?
We can start by creating basic routines and focus in on giving bite sized bits of information, often, and break it down to specific areas of the home. For example, when your child wakes up in the morning in her bedroom, she needs to get dressed, make her bed and put on her glasses. Then when she moves to the bathroom she needs to brush her hair, brush her teeth, and take her medicine. Each room has 3 basic tasks to complete while she is there. Be consistent with the language you use. “Get dressed = get dressed” every day, not “put your clothes on.”
Practice builds habit. It is said that it takes about 21 days to create a habit, but for those who have ADD or executive function issues it will take a lot longer and it could take years. We want to create that muscle memory. We want their bodies to remember to do things that their executive functioning does not. We want the habit to last over time. This is why consistent routine and language are so important and helpful for these kids.
Sometimes we may also have to be the external brain for our child until they mature enough to take it over; or, maybe they will always need an external brain to help keep them on task. The idea is if we are not able to do executive functioning tasks, then we need an outside brain to walk through those steps for us. Things like a planner or checklist can help, but may also be challenging to remember to go back and check off. There are other suggestions such as a watch that has timers and reminders about tasks, or even an app that can help our child through his day.
Is this enabling? Not at all. Accommodating is NOT enabling. Having a lack of executive functioning is NOT disobedience, it’s a disability. Giving our child the ability to function independently is not enabling.
Remember that we are raising adults and we want to be able to hand these resources off to our child as they grow and mature. None of these situations are hopeless.
Check out understood.org to help your child get organized.
Information and examples discussed in this post can be found online at Honestlyadoption.com and understood.org
Blog post written by Sonya Lundstrom, LSW, Post Adopt Coordinator in Grand Forks.