You’re not alone! Some children respond quickly to established classroom routines, while others struggle. For students who find it difficult to see tasks through to completion, it may have more to do with poor executive function skills than lack of effort. Task completion requires many skills including planning, organization, time management, and problem solving. These issues are often most challenging for students with ADHD and learning disabilities.
Executive function is a set of mental skills that helps students get things done. These skills are controlled by the brain’s frontal lobe and they’re important for managing time and paying attention. Children who struggle with executive function issues often have incomplete and late assignments, messy desks and book bags, and difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next. While it’s easy to spot these problems, helping students overcome them takes insight and patience.
According to Seth Perler, an education coach, consultant, and advocate, “Executive Function is the most important concept we must understand in order to help struggling students succeed.” He attributes EF problems to a wide range of issues including unclear expectations, shame, fear, and sensory overload, to name just a few.
But more importantly, Perler offers hope and solutions. His free Systems Checklist explains the importance of executive functions, what hinders these skills, and a step-by-step guide to help students. His suggestions include establishing child-specific routines, chunking assignments, and using timers. You can check out Seth Perler’s Free Cheat Sheet here.
In many districts, students with suspected disabilities can be scheduled for an assessment to see whether or not there are executive functioning issues. From there, recommendations will be made for changes that will support the child’s weak areas. However, before tapping into the formal evaluation process which will ultimately lock in specific accommodations, you may want to experiment with some ideas of your own. Through a bit of sleuthing and trial-and-error, often a teacher will find solutions that work for a student. These strategies can then be shared with teacher receiving the student, next year.
Many of the accommodations made for students struggling with EF issues are helpful to ALL students. Here are a few ideas:
1. TEACHING– Stick to a routine schedule, review the key points of the last lesson before introducing new material, and have the student repeat back any instructions.
2. CLASSROOM– Post important steps for routine procedures, make sure directions are simple and clear, and highlight important words on any handouts.
3. TIME MANAGEMENT– Have the student use an assignment book, issue an extra set of books for home use, and break big projects down into smaller chunks with deadlines.
4. WORK COMPLETION– Provide a rubric or well-executed sample, simplify how the student responds– circle, cross out, or highlight– and use speech-to-text software for written assignments.
Of course, there are many other ways teachers can support students with executive functioning issues. So, where do you start?
Look for clues about the most critical problem. Messy desk? Incomplete work? Poor direction-following skills? Pick ONE issue that’s having the most impact on the student’s academic success, or that’s causing the most disruption to the other students. Start there. One step at a time.
The benefit to this approach is that there may be several students who need support in a single area. You can implement a single type of accommodation for multiple students at the same time. Once you’ve given an approach a try, you can decide what steps you want to take next. Remember, students come to us with deeply ingrained habits, behaviors, and attitudes. Teachers can’t, and shouldn’t, expect to quickly resolve issues students have been dealing with for years.
Set realistic goals for helping students make positive changes. If possible, share your plans and efforts with the student’s other teachers, her parents, and your administrator. This sets the stage if further intervention is needed, and it demonstrates your professional dedication.