Summertime Bootcamp for Executive Function Skills, by Ginny Kochis
Summer’s a cruel mistress--especially for families who struggle with executive function skills.
On the one hand, it seems like a season of opportunity: time to rest, to learn new skills, to make memories you can immortalize on social media and revisit in the years to come.
But for families like mine (and yours, I’m guessing), summer is actually...nuts.
It’s heat and humidity.
It’s vacations and staycations that seemed like a good idea at the time.
It’s a lack of routine, of outside structure, of having a handle on the house, the kids, your family’s life in general.
Summer’s an unorganized caricature of everything you wanted but didn’t get, its lingering disappointment more oppressive than the heat.
Character Flaw or Wiring Difference?
For years, I used to ask myself why everybody else’s summers were so grand and glorious while mine resembled a discarded popsicle left melting in the sand. The highlight reel of social media sharing aside, I finally realized our struggles stemmed from a total lack of executive function.
I have none.
My kids don’t really, either.
It’s hard to have fun in the summertime when those elusive flip flops are hiding in the fridge (because a certain person put them there, distracted on the way to the shoe bin).
Each member of my family copes with some aspect of executive function disorder, a neurological difference in which the brain has difficulty regulating itself long enough to accomplish tasks and goals. Executive function disorder interferes with the ability to master little steps necessary for reaching major milestones.
Like, you know, making coffee first thing in the morning and actually drinking it while it’s hot.
What does this mean for people with executive function disorder? We are frequently frustrated and misunderstood. This is especially true for children (as adults, most of us have figured out at least how to look put together in the moment).
Here’s what most people think they are looking at instead of a lack of executive function skills:
Limited awareness; about where they are in space; about the needs and emotions of people in the room
Limited restraint: either physical or emotional
Forgetfulness: usually about details, instructions, or mundane activities and tasks
Limited emotional regulation: the inability to appropriately express big emotions and thoughts
Laziness: the inability to get started and exhibit follow-through
Limited planning and problem-solving skills: the tendency to fly by the seat of one’s pants and give up when life gets hard
Though these characteristics look like character flaws, they are actually referred to as zones of regulation: a series of scaffolded abilities required for appropriate executive functioning. Individuals with developmental gaps in these areas will not spontaneously recover them as they grow and develop. Rather, they need explicit practice and support in the development of these zones of regulation and the subsequent executive function skills.
Summertime Bootcamp for Executive Function Skills
While it’s true that executive function skills aren’t likely to develop on their own, you can help your children (and even you) improve executive function through the creation of internal and external structures: in other words, habits of mind and external cues that shore up the brain’s working memory deficits. Summer’s the perfect time to put these strategies into action, despite her failings in other areas.
For an open and go solution to your executive function woes, check out my executive function toolkit. It’s loaded with ready-made visual schedules, checklists, and easy-to-use, research-based strategies to support your family’s executive function skills.
If you’d like to DIY your summertime boot camp, however, there are three main strategies you should try. They will create both the internal and external structure your differently-wired family members need to be successful, and, hopefully, set your topsy-turvy summer to rights.
Play games that enhance working memory.
Board games, card games – anything that requires your child to match images, keep track of cards, or focus on more than one concept at a time is a winner (favorites here include variations of Memory and Crazy 8’s)
Work alongside your child and practice.
Remember that what comes naturally to you probably doesn’t come naturally to your child. If you want to teach your child to make coffee, for instance, put step-by-step visual pictures by the coffee maker. Walk through the process with your kiddo a number of times.
Use external cues and motivators.
Visual lists, checklists, and reminders are great for this. Post your morning routine in the kitchen and have your child mark off each step as she completes it. Similar strategies work well for chores and managing screentime, or you can employ a token economy.
Summer is indeed a cruel mistress for exceptional families, but the potential for opportunity remains. Let go of the stress, the anxiety, and the frustration that walks alongside executive function disorder and get moving on building those executive function skills.
Ginny Kochis is a Catholic wife and homeschooling mom to three Twice-Exceptional kids. Ginny believes that God gives curious, creative, intense children the exact mother they need to thrive. She offers practical support and prayerful encouragement to Catholic moms raising differently-wired kids at Not So Formulaic.