During this school year, many parents became more aware than ever before of their children’s difficulty with focus, follow-through, time management, motivation and other school-related executive functioning skills.
These same children may excel at home and in other areas of their life, but they become completely overwhelmed by all of the demands and expectations of school.
Schooling from home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic caused those two worlds to collide, with parents left facing the realization that they have a child who is really struggling with school, and likely experiencing learning loss.
Students are often told to “try harder”. They are told that they are capable, they just need to apply themselves. They are told that they can, and should, do better.
Please know that if your student could do better, he or she would.
It always benefits children (and adults) to meet expectations and excel across the board. If he is not living up to a teacher’s expectations, there is likely a skill that is lacking and creating a barrier to success.
If it looks like she is lazy and not trying, that is a perfect time to dig deeper and find out what is really going on, rather than punish or continue to admonish to “just try.”
Executive functioning skills are developed in the pre-frontal cortex of the frontal lobe part of the brain.
They take up to 24 years to fully mature and develop. They are responsible for higher level problem solving, self-awareness, and planning and prioritizing. They are what we rely on to manage emotions and inhibit impulses, organize both material items and our thoughts, and manage our time wisely and independently.
Executive functioning skills are what we need to begin and persist through challenging tasks, to learn from previously made mistakes, and to maintain focus when multiple things are competing for our attention.
The executive functioning skills begin developing in infancy, and they are shaped by experiences.
Communication, social interactions, emotional experiences, and academic learning all contribute to how a child’s frontal lobe grows and develops until maturity. It is the parent’s job to be the substitute frontal lobe as a child grows, helping children learn to manage emotions, to problem solve, and to organize and plan.
However, it’s not only nurture that contributes. Research shows that children who have ADHD or other neurodiverse diagnoses especially struggle with these skills, regardless of the support and efforts of their parents.
The good news is that executive functioning skills can be strengthened at any age. This requires awareness of one’s weak areas, and a willingness to make some changes.
I have found that kids and teens who struggle in some of these areas want to do better, but they do not know how. Instead of saying “try harder,” I would say, “try something different.”
We are not all wired the same way. We each have a unique combination of strengths and challenges in all areas of our lives.
As the school year comes to an end, parents may feel overwhelmed by their student’s learning loss during what was for most a very challenging year.
Fear not! The brain’s neuroplasticity allows it to be capable of catching up, filling in the gaps, and strengthening lagging skills in an ongoing way.
As a pediatric occupational therapist and ADHD coach, I work with kids and teens of all ages on executive functioning skills. I am holding online summer boot camps for middle school and high school age students so they can assess their own strengths and challenges in the areas of executive functioning skills, study skills, and personal development, such as goals and habits.