The Intersection of Executive Function, ADHD, and Other Learning Differences
In our role as educational therapists, we define executive functioning quite simply: executive functioning is the ability to plan, manage, organize and “DO” your life.
Executive functioning impacts all aspects of "studenting," including: planning, managing time and physical things, starting and completing a task, turning in assignments, note-taking, memory, studying, and managing stress. Executive functioning is not explicitly taught in most schools; instead, it is implicitly expected and assumed that a student will “figure out” their responsibilities and follow through with them.
However, students don’t always “figure it out”. When combined with ADHD or other learning interferences, weak executive functioning skills complicate how a student functions in school and in life. Everything from knowing when a test is to reading all parts of an assignment to managing multiple assignments to writing is impacted by executive functioning. Additionally, as students get older and their lives get increasingly complicated, more is expected of them and they get less and less explicit executive functioning support from teachers.
There are many ways to support a student who struggles with ADHD and weak executive functioning. We are excited to share some of our favorite compensatory strategies.
Start modeling the executive functioning you are doing FOR them
Are you making sure their backpack is ready to go to school? Make them a checklist of what needs to go into their backpack and start having them do it with you. Making a meal for dinner? Show them how much planning goes into cooking a meal. Have to be at a family barbeque by 3PM on a Sunday? Plan out loud so your child can hear all the different elements that go into arriving somewhere on time.
Be upfront and transparent about their schedule
This is especially true for middle and high school students. By the time a student is in middle school, they are expected to be an expert of their own time and calendar. Need help teaching your student how to calendar and figuring out what needs to be on their calendar? Click here to learn about how to calendar and what needs to go on it.
Teach them that writing ISN’T a linear process
Writing is far and away the task most impacted by weak executive functioning. Students are taught that you have to go in order: start with the thesis, complete the introduction, write body paragraphs, and end with a conclusion. Usually, though, they don’t KNOW the thesis of their paper yet and spend a lot of time trying to decipher the mysterious statement. By teaching the student to write the body paragraphs first, the thesis statement emerges naturally and the student’s message becomes coherent. Interested in more writing tips? Click here.
Mental math really isn’t that important
Let’s all stop pretending that we don’t use the calculators on our phone more often than not. When we teach our students to do mental math, we are encouraging mental mistakes and asking students to do many things simultaneously. Demonstrating each step as its own unique process in math is highly important, reduces errors, and helps strengthen sequential ordering. To learn more about our math tips and tricks, click here.
Partner with your child’s teachers
Connect with your child’s teacher and let them know that your family is working on strengthening your child’s executive functioning. Pick one area that you want the teacher to help your child with and ask if they are able and willing to help. (Remember, teachers are running the executive functioning of the entire classroom--you’re asking for an “extra” from your child’s teacher, so being respectful of their time and limitations during the day is really important.) Some ways to partner with your child’s teacher include having them do a backpack check to make sure your child is bringing home the right materials, or completing a planner check to make sure they’ve written down the correct assignments.
Finding a go-to friend
If your child is in middle school or high school, the executive functioning demands have really increased. For students who are just learning how to take control of their time and are starting to implement a calendaring system, there may be times that something falls through the cracks. Expect these lapses and know that this is where growth will occur. Having a plan for these moments is wise, so make sure your student has the number of a friend in the same class to text “just in case.”
Pick one goal at a time
Imagine you’re at the bottom of a staircase. You’re not going to go from the bottom step to the top landing in one fell swoop. Pick one small goal to work towards at a time. This will help your child increase their own independence and autonomy.
Weak executive functioning skills impact all elements of functioning. The first step is to create awareness and conversations about it in your home. Working with a certified educational therapist can help guide your journey.
If you’re interested in learning more about the perspective of educational therapists on executive functioning, ADHD, and a whole slew of other topics, check out Learn Smarter: The Educational Therapy podcast.
Rachel Kapp is an educational therapist and owner of Kapp Educational Therapy Group, a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. She specializes in students with ADHD, executive functioning, and math and writing remediations. You can learn more about her private practice here hereand follow her on Instagram at @kappedtherapy.
Stephanie Pitts is an educational therapist and owner of My Ed Therapist, a private practice in Redondo Beach, CA. She serves students as young as kindergarten and specializes in games that promote psychoeducational growth. You can learn more about her private practice here hereand follow her on Instagram at @myedtherapist.
Together, Rachel and Stephanie co-host Learn Smarter: The Educational Therapy podcast Learn Smarter: The Educational Therapy podcast(@learnsmarterpodcast on Instagram), which is available on all platforms. Learn Smarter is a go-to resource for parents and teachers of students with different learning needs. The podcast discusses topics ranging from executive functioning to games to tips, tricks, and strategies to help struggling learners.