You may have been told that your child has a problem with ‘executive functioning’. Although this might conjure up images of middle-aged men in suits carrying briefcases, it’s actually a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Difficulty with executive functioning is most often associated with ADHD, says Dr Tony Lloyd, CEO of charity the ADHD Foundation, but it can be a feature of lots of other SEN conditions such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia, and can have a huge effect on how a child learns and organises their time and their workload.
These problems come about due to a number of complex, physiological factors, he explains, such as the ability to regulate emotions and impulsivity. Working memory – holding useful information in the ‘front’ of your mind while you complete a task – is also part of this.
“Working memory allows us to understand our environment in the context of prior learning, to apply hindsight or foresight and to decide how to respond,” Dr Lloyd continues. “If you’ve got difficulties with executive function, it can feel like being in a room with four TVs turned on at once and you can’t filter out information from any of them.”
Impaired executive function can also mean that a child is overwhelmed by schoolwork and doesn’t know where to start, he says, and they may also find it difficult to concentrate or follow instructions. The anxiety this generates leads to stress hormones surging round the body which make it even harder to ‘knuckle down’.
What Can Help Executive Functioning?
Dora, a tutor with thirteen years’ experience teaching English and Maths at further education colleges, now works with young people from GCSE to post-graduate level, helping with study skills.
“Time-management and prioritisation of tasks should be taught at school from a young age,” she asserts. “A lot of children struggle with this.”
She finds that making sure her students stick to a well-defined timetable helps them understand what is expected of them and encourages self-discipline. Giving them small, organisational tasks – such as filing notes after each lesson – is also useful, she says.
At home, she advises parents to limit the time their child spends on computer games. “Too much screen-time leaves them spaced out. The virtual world has little to do with the real world.”
Tackle Anxiety To Improve Executive Functions
Krista, a SEN private tutor, psychology teacher and the mum of two children with special needs, says that students can definitely learn ways to compensate for poor executive skills but agrees that the biggest challenge is to tackle their anxiety so that they believe they really can succeed.
To help with working memory, for example, she gets students to use a highlighter pen to underline the key points in their work so that they don’t have to ‘hold’ too much information in the forefront of their minds.
“And I always give them information three ways – visually, verbally and in writing,” she continues. “You have to give them bite-size pieces that are too easy, to start with, to boost their confidence. I also get them to talk me through what they’ve just learned. Even if they’re just repeating what I’ve said, it will make them feel good. It’s amazing how quickly that confidence grows.”
It’s better, she adds, to get ten minutes of good, focused concentration from a student than half-an-hour of half-heartedly trying. “Rewards are also important to motivate children. Learn what their pleasures are.”
Clarify & Simplify To Reduce Stress
Dr Debra Costley, Director of Education at the University of Nottingham, has worked in special schools in the USA, Australia and the UK and has particular expertise in autism. She says that problems with executive functioning can be a massive barrier for children with SEN when it comes to learning any subject.
“Even children who are gifted in a subject don’t necessarily have the skills to organise themselves,” she explains. “They may not know, for example, how much time to spend on each question in an exam. You can’t assume they’ll work it out for themselves, you have to show them. If they need to spend ten minutes per question, for example, set a timer.”
Students may also have problems with cognitive flexibility, Dr Costley points out. This, she says, is the ability to switch easily from one topic to another. To manage this, teaching staff need to be very clear when they have finished one subject and are starting another. Keeping all instructions simple and clear – for example, ‘sit down’ or ‘get out your books’ – can also reduce a lot of stress for students.
She also recommends students write things down where possible to reduce the amount of working memory they are using during a lesson.
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