Michele’s daughter Isabella is known to her dance teachers as a promising young artist and athlete. Unfortunately, she’s also known as the kid who is always losing her gear.
I take courage hearing these stories from friends and knowing that I’m not alone as the parent of a teen who regularly leaves coats, hats, gloves, hoodies, sunglasses, goggles, towels and shoes (yes, shoes) in his wake. I have since learned this trait — the wall against which parents everywhere bang their heads — relates to children’s not fully developed executive-functioning ability.
Executive-functioning skills are, according to Baltimore County Public Schools social worker Beth Lambert, the broad, brain-based skills required to self-regulate and execute a task from start to finish. Executive function regulates “impulse control, emotional control, flexibility, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation and organization,” Lambert says. These skills “emerge slowly throughout adolescence” in the pre-frontal cortex or what she calls the brain’s command and control center.
If you’ve ever wondered why car insurance rates drop when drivers reach age 25, it’s because insurance companies know what the average parent does not: This is the estimated age at which executive-functioning skills finish maturing. (Lambert says in some people it could take until age 30.) “Everyone is on a continuum,” she says. Genes and hereditary factors play a role as do disabilities.
If students without a disability are struggling with the ramifications of underdeveloped executive-function skills, the disadvantages for kids with disabilities may seem daunting. Several disabilities and conditions — obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, traumatic brain injury, autism, depression, Tourette Syndrome, learning disabilities and emotional disabilities — have been linked to executive-function delays.
Towson-based therapist Vivian Morgan says problems with executive functioning arise when adult expectations don’t consider kids’ developmental reality.
Executive function is “the last thing that gets developed” in the brain, Morgan says. “There’s something called myelination that happens” that makes multi-step tasks “become automatic.” Myelination makes routine-setting easier but can also “make it harder to learn new things, too.” Until myelination finishes, the child’s brain is “under construction,” Morgan says.
In middle school, with its 45-minute blocks of class time, students and teachers can struggle with a child’s underdeveloped executive-functioning skills. The end of one class, transition and beginning of the next requires “a whole lot of executive function: working memory, planning, impulse control, organization and focus — all of them engaged in the beginning and end of every class.”
Lambert says managing a multi-step task is not only a developmental reality, it’s also a skill, and “these skills aren’t taught.” Executive functioning is part of the “hidden curriculum” students are expected to know but don’t.
“If you aren’t taught and you don’t have support at home, how do you learn to use a calendar?” she asks. “How do you know about back-mapping and prioritizing?”
Map it out
If your child, like mine, can’t always be trusted to remove the candy from his pockets before loading the washing machine, there’s hope, according to Lambert.
Lambert suggests every child should be given lessons at home and in the classroom on how to organize, manage time, prioritize, study, use an agenda, manage emotions and switch gears in thinking. Parents and teachers should give explicit step-by-step instructions, model the desired behavior and provide cuing until the skill is mastered.
It’s important, Lambert says, to know your child and recognize that some kids need more support, accommodation, monitoring and feedback. The best teachers and mentors, says Lambert, set the bar high while providing support. She recommends taking the following steps to address an executive-functioning issue that has developed into a problem.
- Set a goal.
For example, “record home assignments accurately” or “clean your room every Saturday.”
- Provide support and remove barriers.
Lambert suggests recording assignments in a detailed planner that includes after-school activities. Or kids can use the buddy system or use their phone to take pictures of assignments written on the board. Lambert urges parents to help kids anticipate roadblocks by explaining how to ask for help from a teacher.
- Outline the steps required to reach the goal.
Instead of saying, “Clean your room,” for instance, break the task into sequential steps like making a bed, vacuuming and dusting. Specify the materials needed and where to find — and return — them.
- Model and practice.
Lambert recommends building a system together. Have your child show you where homework will be kept and when it will be done. Practice these skills and be patient.
“Provide prompts, frequent check-ins and positive reinforcement,” Lambert says. She also recommends setting phone reminders.
- Fade supervision.
Build accountability by fading out supervision. Some kids will need supervision longer than others. Lambert suggests conducting periodic, and spontaneous, checks during this phase.
Teaching time management
If an evening is busy, Lambert suggests a hypothetical walk-through of the tasks that need to happen to help students learn how to plan. She suggests asking your child: “What do we do when we get in the door? How much time will that take? What do we do next?”
Lambert is a fan of to-do lists with due dates, frequent check-ins and reinforcement, visual timers, “work, work, break” schedules and recording the “estimated time versus the actual time it takes to complete a task” to help set realistic time goals. She also suggests setting alarms to help kids self-monitor how much time is spent off-task. “If you aren’t aware,” she says, “you can’t change a behavior.”
Organization: It’s not just aesthetically pleasing
Organization is “not just about being clean,” says Lambert. “It’s about being efficient.” In workshops, she’ll show students a messy backpack, then an organized backpack and ask how they’d feel with each. She recommends helping students find specific places where important papers should go and clearly labeling these places. Some teachers make a “binder check” part of a student’s grade.
Teaching kids to get and stay organized can be harder in the teenage years, Morgan says. “While myelination is developing, parents are a child’s executive function, [but] teens want to assert their individuality. That’s actually their job,” she says. “When you act as their executive function, you’re interfering with their job.”
Morgan urges parents to make a plan with their child rather than for her or him. “Set aside a time to problem solve,” she suggests. “Ask when a good time to do that is. When they aren’t ‘ambushed,’ they can put some thought into the issue before you talk.”
When you engage your child to help put routines and schedules in place, “you’re helping myelination happen,” she says.
Help is out there
Counseling or coaching can help. “Counseling can address the underlying emotional concerns,” Morgan says. Often, there have been years and years of struggle where “self-esteem gets damaged in that process.”
“Kids have so much pressure to be adult-like,” Morgan says. But their brains are not functioning that way — “they aren’t mini-adults” — and a little empathy can go a long way. “Remember how you were as a teen,” she says. We must “trust in our own growth process and theirs.”