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Executive Functioning Success, One Skill at a Time by Kearney Doherty

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Imagine being on an important phone call with your boss while getting dinner started. Your child is yelling your name for help on homework, the television is blaring, and the dog is running in circles around the kitchen barking because the postman is delivering the mail.  Where does your focus go?  Does any one task get accomplished completely with your full attention and ability?  

Your answer is probably no. How do I know? With over fifteen years of experience working in special education, I have seen countless children who haven’t been able to focus on any one task due to classroom noise, peers talking, multi-step directions, and more.  Working with them, their families, and the IEP team to help them overcome these hurdles has been a passion of mine.  

Children display difficulties in a variety of ways.  Some of these difficulties stem from sensory overload; the inability to focus or process information is a regular occurrence with children with executive functioning needs. When we see a lack in executive functioning skills those children may need support in organization, multitasking, self-regulation, task initiation, working memory, or impulse control. 

When children have executive functioning delays, these skills may not be working as well as they should. We then begin to see needs in different ways at home, school, and in the community, which can appear as: 

  • Talking out, interrupting others
  • Staying on topic
  • Completing tasks independently
  • Taking on big projects (including delaying the start of one until the last minute)
  • Staying organized and keeping track of homework and papers to take to and from school
  • Managing time
  • Locating personal items when it's time to leave home (shoes/coat/bookbag)
  • Controlling emotions/behaviors
  • Avoiding distractions 
  • Difficulties with transitions

To help support children with these needs, we need to understand the “why” behind it.   They are not forgetting homework or aren’t able to follow directions on purpose.  Often, they begin to lose confidence in their ability or show frustration because they want to do well, but they are unable to. They need strategies in place to help them organize and complete tasks in order to feel successful.

In my experience, teaching, modeling, and practicing the strategies can lead to progress for the child.  After working with a child using strategies for organization, the pride and confidence shone through as his pride for being on time and prepared for school and practice increased!  

Focus on one skill and hone in on that (i.e. impulse control, task completion, etc). It should become a routine that takes practice and repetition in order to see results!  

Some strategies that can be used would be:

  • Visual aids/space for self-regulation needs (book, cards, calming area, etc)
  • Ensure regular sleep and diet habits
  • Teach coping strategies to manage stress
  • Ensure the child knows rules and expectations (at home/school)
  • Use Stop, Think and Act strategy
  • Provide praise for successful use of strategies
  • Model appropriate behavior (role play, or rehearse, modeling)
  • Give advance schedule/warning of days activities/plans (especially if there is a change)
  • Break down tasks into smaller parts
  • Use a checklist

Work upon the interests and strengths of your child when coming up with a plan or strategy.  If your child likes baseball and playtime with dad, mom, or an older sibling, let’s bank on that!!  Allow them to be part of the process.  Stick to the plan and reflect upon the instances after the moment with your child.  Adjust or modify the plan as needed.  Eventually, back off the support and let your child become more independent once they are demonstrating the skill with your prompts or reminders.  

Since these skills carry throughout environments, be sure to work with your school or IEP team to implement the strategies across all settings.  If checklists work at home, they should be used at school as well.  If coping strategies are being used at school, model and use them at home!  The routine and consistency are important to allow these children to begin to internalize the strategies and use them independently. 

There is no one way that works for all children with needs in executive functioning skills.  One strategy that may work for one child, may not be successful with another. Many can be used in all settings and can be incorporated into everyday life.  Giving them the strategies to feel successful and a sense of accomplishment for completing tasks that used to be such a battle is a win-win for all!!  

About the Author:

Kearney Doherty is an Education Consultant, Master IEP Coach® and mom. My services are geared to support you in understanding the special education process to become your child’s best advocate with confidence. After working as a special educator and administrator for over fifteen years, I continue to work for children and their families so that their needs are met in the schools.

Find Kearney in the Master IEP Coach® Directory here


If you liked this and want IEP strategies, then you’ll love these episodes of the Special Education Inner Circle podcast: 

#109 New Executive Functioning Skills with Mike McLeod

#97 Becoming a Lifelong Reader with Dr. Cleary

#37 Life Skills Don't Lower Expectations



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