Parent-teacher conference season has arrived. If you have children in grammar school, that means it's time to cram yourself into a tiny little chair and get the report from the teacher. For some parents, these conferences are bound to raise anxiety levels, especially if the words "weak executive function" are spoken.
The term "executive function" refers to those neurologically based skills that involve mental control and self-regulation. A child with a well-developed executive function can manage tasks like writing a paper or completing homework on time without much difficulty. She has the ability to control her impulses so that she stays focused and attains her goal.
Naturally, a well-developed executive function is an important factor in academic success.
If you have heard those words, or hear those words in the next few weeks, here are six things that you can start implementing right away to help your child develop this all-important organizational function.
1. Clean your home environment. Before you focus on what's wrong with your child, take a look around your home. Do you have clutter zones? Does your child have an organized space for doing homework? Is her room a disaster? Go to work as a family on organizing the environment. Banish clutter in bedrooms and in common rooms. Set up a homework station where all schoolwork will be done consistently. If the "noise" from clutter is distracting and stressful for those with robust executive functions, imagine how much more difficult it makes concentration for those with a limited ability to self-regulate. The first step you should take is to create an environment that is conducive to focus.
2.Take greater control with routines: Is your household going in a million different directions all the time? Does your child have a series of routines that he does regularly? If not, help him improve his control by instituting some basic routines and schedules. For example, you may want to start with a morning routine that is comprised of a few basic steps, such as making the bed, throwing dirty PJs in the hamper, getting dressed and brushing teeth. Keep track of progress with a sticker chart and celebrate the wins.
3. Reward him when he overrides his impulses. Rather than waiting to celebrate when a task or goal is completed, reward your child for making consistent progress. Pay particular attention as he is working, and if you notice him controlling impulses, praise him for his attention and effort. Then when he has completed a task, make sure you mention how proud you are of him for sticking with it, working through temptation to do something else. Ask him how he feels about his ability to concentrate.
4. Let her fail to read instructions. Instead of expecting your child to obtain skills via observation, let her roll up her sleeves and actually get to work on a task. But be sure to instill in your child that the first step of doing is reading instructions. The more strongly you can link up the unpleasant side effect of more work with failure to follow guidelines, the better off she will be. Although it may be tempting, do not complete tasks on your child's behalf or tell her what to do. If, or when, she gets stuck, help her figure out how to get over the bump and move forward productively.
5. Use incentives to amplify lessons. B.F. Skinner demonstrated that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement in bringing about lasting behavior change. So focus on rewarding the progress your child is making rather than punishing him for failures. Incentives can take the form of praise or you could create a point system, which allows your child to earn rewards regularly.
6. Consider seeing a specialist. If your child is exhibiting significant challenges in the areas of impulse and emotional control, she may have a clinically diagnosable disorder. Talk to your pediatrician if you think your child should be tested.