The bell rings. Eleven-year-old Kasey explodes from her desk and races out the door, knocking into a few desks, trampling a few toes, and elbowing several classmates out of the way. She is SO ready for recess and trots off to grab a ball before anyone else does.
Kasey has no idea that there is a problem. After all, the bell rang and all she’s doing is going outside for recess! But once again, she is in trouble and her parents are going to get a call because she knocked a classmate down as she jettisoned out the door.
Kasey is a nice, well-meaning kid, but she has very poor executive function skills. She is unable to self-monitor and manage her attention and behavior. She wouldn’t purposely knock other students down, but she is impulsive and doesn’t mentally predict or evaluate the consequences of her actions.
Executive function skills are high-level self-management skills that develop all the way through childhood, but don’t completely develop until about age 25. Most students need some guidance in developing executive function, and some, like Kasey, need a great deal of intentional, guided, and monitored instruction.
Steps to Helping Children and Teens Develop Executive Function
Learning to create and use strategies to monitor and evaluate behavior and attention is literally training executive function. Applying the use of strategies to problem solving of any kind involves:
- Awareness that there is a problem
- Identifying exactly what the problem is
- Coming up with possible solutions or strategies
- Evaluating how well each strategy will work and what the outcome will be
- Deciding on the best solution
- Committing to trying it
- Evaluating whether the outcome was what was expected
- Modifying the strategy as needed
These are steps we can use to help children develop executive function and study skills. Through dialoguing, modeling, practicing, and evaluating together, children become more and more capable of managing their own behavior, choices, attention, and studies.
Applying these Steps for Kasey
Awareness that there is a problem
Parent or teacher re-enact the scene with Kasey, helping her notice the things and people she bumps or tramples as she races for the door.
Identify exactly what the problem is
Kasey has weak auditory processing and language skills, so sitting in a class that requires listening and note-taking is like torture for her. By the time the bell rings, she’s ready to jump out of her skin. The problem for Kasey, is that she is so uncomfortable by the end of class that she just has to get out of the class and move, NOW!
Come up with possible solutions or strategies
Possible Solution #1: Kasey could be released for recess early
Possible Solution #2: Kasey could sit right next to the door
Possible Solution #3: Kasey could be restricted from going to recess every time she races out the door
Possible Solution #4: Kasey could sit closer to the door and be put in charge of opening the door for recess
Dialogue to evaluate how well each strategy will work and what the outcome will be
#1: Could keep other students from getting knocked around, but it may cause Kasey to miss assignments given at the end of the period and cause other students to be mad at her for going to recess early
#2: Kasey can get out the door quickly without having to navigate through the rest of the students. This meets Kasey’s need to move and the teacher’s need to keep other students safe. It does not take any extra time.
#3: This might eventually help Kasey remember not to run out the door, but does not meet her need to move.
#4: Giving Kasey the responsibility of opening the door for the class (and teaching class that they are to wait until door is opened before heading for the door) gets Kasey to the door first and gives her something important to do that provides a reason to be less impulsive and more intentional about going to the door.
Kasey and her teacher can decide on the best solution (either #2 or #4). Both need to commit to trying it for a given amount of time (1 – 5 days) and then evaluate together how it is working. They need to modify the strategy as needed.
If solution #2 was chosen, they might find that Kasey is still impulsively racing out the door, though no one is in her way. To help Kasey be more intentional about controlling her impulsiveness and speed, they might decide to try solution #4, with the caveat that a leader has to be an example. The teacher might (privately) have Kasey role play / practice several times saying to herself, “When the bell rings, I walk slowly to the door” and then do it.
This strategy is worth the time it takes, as it helps students to become more independent and responsible and feel better about themselves.
When students such as Kasey struggle in school, it is usually because there are weak underlying learning/processing skills that are not supporting the learner well enough. Correcting the real root of Kasey’s challenges will involve developing the underlying auditory and language processing skills so that she doesn’t have to feel like she’s going to jump out of her skin by the end of the lecture.
The great news is that the underlying skills needed for students to be successful, independent learners can be developed. If you or your child are struggling with learning, attention, or executive function challenges and you’re ready for a real change…
JOIN US for a FREE Parent Information Night!
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