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Supporting Students Who Struggle With Executive Functioning During Distance Learning

As educators and mental health professionals, helping students manage their executive functioning is a critical aspect of building the foundation for academic, social and emotional success. For neuroatypical students, particularly those with autism and ADHD, addressing executive functioning skills within the classroom setting is already challenging enough. However, with current hybrid models and distance learning, many of these students are struggling even more to adapt.

Background info for educators

Executive functioning is often thought of as the “management center of the brain” or the control center of thinking. Our executive functioning assists with many different cognitive skills, which is why it not only impacts students academically, but also socially, emotionally and physically. Some skills associated with executive functioning include: attentiveness, self-monitoring and regulating, emotional/impulse control, organizational skills, ability to prioritize, perspective taking, and planning/chunking larger tasks into smaller pieces. Many of these skills help us to perform tasks throughout our entire lives. Therefore, executive dysfunction can have a lifelong impact on students beyond their capabilities in the classroom.

What does executive dysfunction look like?

Difficulties concerning executive functioning vary from person to person and also differ in severity. Common examples of ways in which students exhibit executive dysfunction include:

  • Avoiding tasks or struggling to initiate an assignment
  • Procrastinating; trouble with managing time
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks or steps in a process
  • Misplacing things
  • Struggling to put thoughts on paper; difficulty explaining oneself
  • Difficulty transitioning between tasks or moving from one activity to another
  • May struggle to follow directions or to complete steps in chronological order
  • May exhibit a preoccupation with a small detail of the task; i.e. missing the big picture
  • Difficulty with working memory; they may forget what they heard or read
  • May struggle when schedules, rules, procedures or expectations change; i.e. exhibit a level of inflexibility when they’ve become used to a certain routine

Providing assistance with these struggles in the classroom is much easier; educators are physically there in person to alleviate issues and help students to troubleshoot their individual challenges. In the classroom, we have the ability to personally connect with students and provide them with necessary supports and accommodations, like check-ins, checklists, organizers etc. Now, with distance learning, students with executive dysfunctions are not necessarily getting the same level of support and attention. We can fix this, however, with a little creativity — and a lot of patience!

Strategies for teachers during distance learning

Here are a few tips for supporting students with executive functioning issues:

  • Assess: Take inventory of your students’ needs and tendencies. I began the school year by asking every student which part of the writing process he/she hates the most. Do they struggle to begin writing? Drafting? Organizing a cohesive argument/essay? Revising? Getting thoughts down on paper? For students who said that they find it difficult to get started, I provided several supports.
  • Model: Firstly, every writing task that I ask students to do, I also complete and spend one class period reading my draft and discussing my writing process. Seeing an example of what the final task should look like is beneficial for all students, but especially those who struggle to initiate writing and to see the big picture. During this “modeled writing session,” I ask students to tell me what they notice about the sample. Their answers provide me with insight into how they interpret the assignment, which allows me to see who really needs greater scaffolds and who does not.
  • Specify: Secondly, when students disclose that getting ideas onto paper is their greatest challenge, I provide them with very specific, thoroughly broken down organizers with sentence starters. This removes the “getting started” barrier and gives them a jumpstart to initiate the task with some momentum.
  • Organize: Finally, for my students who struggle to piece together their writing (organize and revise), I find it helpful to color-coordinate the different aspects of the essay or paragraph. For example, I may highlight students’ thesis statements in red, transition words in blue, evidence/quotes in green, and analysis in orange. When reading through a student’s draft, I can easily direct them to certain sections with specific instructions to add more orange, for instance. This tells them immediately that their paper is lacking sufficient analysis. It also tells them where that analysis or orange should be placed so that the guesswork is gone.
  • Check-in: Another best practice we regularly use in the classroom is to chunk larger assignments and include check-ins throughout the project or essay. With distance learning, I’ve found that breakout rooms in Zoom allow for me to specifically check in with each student during a writing work session. The platform allows students to share their screen with me 1:1 so I can check their progress individually. This practice also allows me to see who is far behind in terms of completion. The check-ins prompt students to set small goals while working, but they also allow enough time for me to intervene if a task looks like it’s falling to the wayside.

Distance learning has been hard on everyone, but even more so for families dealing with the challenges associated with executive dysfunction. Now it is time to look at executive dysfunction from the parent perspective. What does it look like at home, outside of the classroom or separate from academic tasks? What are some strategies and methods parents can implement at home to help children who struggle with executive functioning?

Executive dysfunction in the everyday

Deficits in executive functioning are sometimes more subtle when children are at home or not engaged in a learning task. This is why executive dysfunction is easier to spot from an educational or clinical perspective. For parents, it may seem like your child is constantly interrupting you or trying to talk over others. This might not indicate a lack of manners. It could, in fact, be associated with a lack of executive functioning skills. Impulse control, thinking before acting, and processing someone else’s words before responding are all skills attributed to executive functioning.

Similarly, if you notice that your child has difficulty retaining one or two instructions at a time, or if they cannot follow directions they just heard or read, they may be experiencing some form of executive dysfunction. What seems like a disregard for rules or instructions could actually be an attentive issue and/or an issue involving working memory, both of which are associated with executive functioning.

A child may also struggle with following processes, even after repetition or reminders. Furthermore, metacognitive skills, such as learning how to study, learning how to take notes, and knowing how to synthesize new information with prior knowledge, can also be a struggle for children with executive dysfunction. However, there are methods that parents can use at home to help strengthen these necessary skills.

Strategies to use at home

Model certain processes for your child and provide them with visual reminders. For example, if you are encouraging your middle schooler to start doing their own laundry, help them through the process by doing it together the first few times. Talk and walk them through the steps very specifically and consider using labeled and categorized sorting bins to remind them to separate whites from darks. Put a sticker or little post-in note in the laundry room as a reference for how to set the machine for certain loads. Use specific, ordered language when walking them through the process, such as “first, next, finally or last.” Any process, whether it’s laundry, getting ready for bed, or getting dressed in the morning should be modeled, specific and consistent.

The level of support you need to provide to your child with the above-mentioned processes should be tapered over time. You may need to actually do the laundry while they watch, initially. Then, slowly withdraw your level of support as they get comfortable completing the task independently.

When your child makes a mistake, use it as a teachable moment. Without scolding, talk through their thought process — or lack thereof — and ask them specifically how they could have gone about things differently. Consider providing your own example of a time you did something similar and how you fixed the problem. Children with executive dysfunction should see that everyone struggles and faces challenges, but that growth involves using those errors as learning experiences. Ask metacognitive questions like: What made you do that? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you react that way? How could you have done it or reacted differently? What did you learn or realize from this? Give them time to process and ponder these questions.

Inject some fun into the challenge of developing or strengthening executive functioning by incorporating age-appropriate games, activities, or challenges. Matching games are great for developing working memory. Other card games help children practice impulse control, rule following, strategizing, organizing, and quick-response. Parents can also use music to help foster executive functioning skills. Use songs that have repetitive sections or songs that can be sung in rounds to practice coordination on a more complex level. Singing in rounds also prompts children to practice listening and using working memory. I Spy and word searches help children work on selective attention and practice reducing visual distractions.

Getty image by Drazen Zigic.