“Where’s my backpack?” “I lost my permission slip!” “I didn’t finish my project!” “I got suspended for punching Joey.” Sounds chaotic. Sounds frustrating. Sound familiar? If so, your child may have difficulties with executive function (EF). Executive functions are brain-based skills that help us perform certain tasks such as holding information in memory long enough to use it properly (working memory), impulse control, organization and planning, and emotional regulation.
Here are four strategies to help calm down a child with executive function difficulties:
Strategy 1: Enhance Working Memory
One way to help enhance a child’s working memory is to help them learn the tool of self-talk. For example, this can include teaching them to verbalize what they need to do in order to improve their working memory: “I need to put my homework in my bag, then I can grab a snack before I play my game.”
Another way to help improve working memory is to have your child teach you something they learned at school. Games that involve memory or sequencing often help as well. Dividing information into smaller bits is also helpful and far less stressful when it comes to memorizing things like times tables, the table of elements, etc. Mastering smaller tasks builds a child’s confidence if they struggle with working memory.
Strategy 2: Increase Impulse Control
Imagine having to navigate a busy intersection without ever having seen a set of stoplights – that’s what it’s like for kids with EF difficulties. For very young children, visual cues are a good way to help them understand meaning. Using stoplight colours with pictures of Feeling Faces can help children associate when to slow down, when to stop, and when to go based on others’ emotions. Be sure to talk with them about the colour (the impulse) and the associated feeling.
To help your child learn to stop interrupting, teach them to gently place their hand on your arm to let you know they need something from you. Acknowledge that you see them by placing your hand on their shoulder and saying, “I see you. I will be with you when I’m done with…” You will need to do this over and over until they understand how to interrupt you properly and how to wait for your attention.
Helping children prepare for change can prevent most emotional outbursts.
If a child has a hard time waiting their turn or sharing, it’s likely that they also have a hard time maintaining friendships. To help with this, rehearse scenarios where they might be tempted to act impulsively. Talk about situations that might come up and what would be appropriate. Use verbal prompts to help them remember: “What’s the rule about sharing your game when you are at Jane’s house?”
If your child has already made a negative impulsive decision, this is a great time to sit with them and go over why they made the choice, the consequences, and what they could do differently next time. For this step to work well – and for them to be open to repeating the step in the future – ask questions out of curiosity rather than judgement.
With older children/teens, help them list the pros and cons of decisions so they can make better choices in the future and slow down the impulsive decisions.
Strategy 3: Improve Organization and Planning
Helping kids recognize the actual time it takes to complete a task is vital to planning. Create a chart with two columns: one labelled “Predicted Time” and the other labeled “Actual Time.” Have your child list some activities such as brushing teeth, eating breakfast, getting dressed, doing homework, etc., along with the amount of time they predict it will take to complete each task. Then, for the next week, have them time themselves and fill in the actual time it takes to do what they’ve listed. Once the week is up, together you can create a schedule that is appropriate for them to help reduce rushing in the morning, before hockey, etc.
Keeping track of worksheets, binders, backpacks, gym shorts, etc., is difficult for most kids/teens, but it’s especially trying for the youth with EF difficulties. One thing you can do to help them get organized is to create a binder with three separate categories for schoolwork:
- The important section should consist of the things that need immediate attention like upcoming tests or assignments.
- Semi-important items are those that can wait a few days such as starting an outline for an essay or coming up with an idea for a project that’s due in a few weeks.
- Things that have already dealt with can be considered unimportant, and are ready to be stored away in a different folder outside of the binder.
Laminated cards on the backside of a bedroom door can be a visual reminder of what to pack in their bag prior to school each morning. For older children/teens, make use of technology by getting them to set reminders on their phone by using the calendar or reminders app.
Strategy 4: Focus on Emotional Regulation
Helping children prepare for change can prevent most emotional outbursts. Giving 10- and 5-minute warnings before an activity is going to change helps a child prepare for that change. Make sure you have the child’s attention by asking them to repeat the time: “It’s five minutes before we have to pack up the toys and leave. Jamie, can you repeat that to me?”
If your child is in the middle of an outburst, acknowledge their feelings.
If your child is in the middle of an outburst, acknowledge their feelings to help them calm down. Show empathy, but don’t excuse improper or dangerous behaviour. “I see that this is really hard for you. It’s frustrating to have to leave your friends when you’re having so much fun. However, it’s not Okay to hit/yell at mommy.” Allow your child a quiet place to calm down. Once they’re calm, equip them with some new skills by asking, “What might you do differently next time?” Most emotional outbursts can be prevented by recognizing that your child may be overwhelmed, overtired, or isn’t yet equipped with the tools to handle the situation.
Executive function difficulties can be frustrating for parents and teachers but are often even more so for the children that live with them each day. Teaching your child new techniques for managing their day can help reduce their frustration and provide calm in the midst of chaos.
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