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Ways to Spot Executive Functioning Challenges in Your Child

Executive functioning skills are the foundation of what kids and teens are expected to do in school and at home on a daily basis. When kids are lacking in executive functioning skills, they struggle with keeping up with both basic and challenging things at home and school.

Your child can be bright but might not be able to remember to bring his homework to school, put his shoes away or flush the toilet. This leads to a lot of arguing and frustration at home because no one understands each other. “How can Alex have a 120 IQ, but doesn't know how to finish his homework”?  Well, if you don't have good executive functioning, completing even easy tasks can be hard. 

You have expectations (and so does school and employers) and they have to deal with the constant challenge of living up to many of them. The problem is they don't “see” what they need to do because they lack executive functioning skills. And when the expectations aren’t met, these kids have to deal with consequences that often don't help them learn skills. Kids may be labeled as lazy, unmotivated or careless, as opposed to lacking specific skills. And what does that do for them except increase their shame and frustration? This is where a skilled professional can help because those skills can be learned with the right interventions. 

The Brain and Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills are controlled by the brain’s frontal lobe. These skills are the ones related to focus, planning, and organization. Some people, often those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression, or failure to launch have a hard time focusing, managing time, switching focus, and controlling their impulses.

The frontal lobe can affect executive function in multiple ways, including:

  • Organization: The ability to gather and order information to process it and organize materials
  • Working memory: Is a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks
  • Regulation: Being able to take in your environment and control your response to it
    Inhibition: The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts.
  • Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation. This can be within a task or between tasks.
  • Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.

What are Executive Functions?

There are twelve executive functioning skills that develop throughout childhood and into adulthood. These skills provide us with the ability to interact in our environments effectively, successfully and independently. These skills are not fully developed until around 25 years of age. When a person is not strong in a particular skill(s) at a developmentally expected age, it can negatively impact their relationships, school success, and overall self-confidence. When someone has weak executive functioning skills, there are many ways to intervene depending on the age, therefore identifying these weaknesses earlier can lead to less resistance and quicker results. It is important to understand what executive functioning is so you can get a better sense of if your child is lacking in the 12 foundational components of executive functioning. 

There are 12 Executive Functions: 

  • Response Inhibition
  • Working Memory
  • Emotional Control
  • Sustained Attention
  • Task Initiation
  • Planning/Prioritization
  • Organization
  • Time Management
  • Goal-Directed Persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Metacognition
  • Stress Tolerance 

Executive Functioning in the Real World

A child can be very capable of performing tasks but often falls short, whether it’s doing chores, homework, keeping their room clean, being ready on time, or starting and finishing tasks in enough time. You wonder why? Is this on purpose? Is this genetic? Maybe they have ADHD? 

ADHD and executive functioning are two different clinical disorders and other clinical issues can impact a child's or teen's executive functioning too.

You may feel frustrated and confused because there have been times when you’ve witnessed your child willing and able to do these things but they can’t maintain doing them, they seem lazy, lack motivation or act like it’s too daunting. Unless you nag them, nada! And boy you've had it. Who enjoys being a nag, besides your Aunt Betty. You may ask why are there sometimes my child can do these tasks, or why can their younger siblings do them better. I mean it's the same genetics! 

You’ve probably tried many things to help your child and ultimately given up or keep having the same arguments. So many therapists, tutors, and meds but yet nothing changes. An understanding of what is going on is the first step toward change. 

What Happens When You Have Weak Executive Functioning Skills?

In a younger child with weak sustained attention and task initiation skills, she may struggle to complete a chore without a parent helping. In a middle school-aged child with weak impulse control and flexibility skills, he may not be able to say no to friends or stop playing video games without constant reminders. In high school-aged kids with weak time management and planning/prioritizing skills, he may never be on time, not start assignments early enough or is often missing something important. If these skills are not identified as weaknesses but instead labeled as laziness or defiance, the ability to improve and strengthen the skills does not take place. Or if you have tried a bunch of things and nothing has worked, then maybe they help you got wasn’t from an executive functioning specialist or it wasn’t paired with the necessary teaching required to learn NEW behaviors.

Understanding what good executive functioning skills are, can help a parent see what skills their child is missing, which gives the path to what skills need to be learned.  Executive functioning skills training can do a lot to cultivate change.

Help for Executive Functioning Problems

If you’re a parent of a child with executive functioning difficulties, then you have probably realized that your child isn't going to just magically learn how to organize their homework or messy room. The good news is that executive functioning skills can be taught. 

A trained and skilled therapist can identify these weaknesses and develop a plan to implement strategies and modifications to strengthen the skills. Just like anything else, executive functioning skills can be directly taught and learned and should be. Without new learning, your child or teen will be stuck in the same behavioral patterns and worse, you’ll be stuck nagging them. And no one wants that! 

The first problem that needs to be addressed is how one neurologically orients to the environment around them. A child or teen with EF problems doesn’t see the end result, therefore needs to be directly taught to see the end product first, and then work backward and this can be done with executive functioning coaching. A checklist isn’t going to teach them to “see” what the end product is and frankly they will never connect their actions to the end product that way.  It will only lead to your child or teen being STUCK with needing constant reminders to do this or that. Parents also need to change what they are saying to help reinforce what their child is learning and working with a highly trained specialist can really turn things around. This is especially effective when paired with neurofeedback, which gets the brain to regulate and alert differently. When you get the brain to get into a healthy rhythm and pay attention through highly effective neurofeedback and couple it with new learning through coaching, your child and teen can actually begin to take independent steps that lead to good executive functioning. 

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. 

Are you looking for SOLUTIONS for your child or teen struggling with executive functioning? 

Dr. Roseann and her team are all about solutions for kids with EF issues who need blossoming, so you are in the right place! 

Register for Dr, Roseann's FREE webinar, 5 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Executive Functioning and Attention at School,  where Dr. Roseann will show you how to help your child or teen be more alert, listen, develop skills to be independent and self-sufficient and improve task completion.

Need help parenting a child with executive functioning issues, there are 3 ways to work with Dr. Roseann: 

You can get her books for parents and professionals, including: It’s Gonna Be OK™: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child’s Mental Health, Teletherapy Toolkit™ and Brain Under Attack: A Resource For Parents and Caregivers of Children With PANS, PANDAS, and Autoimmune Encephalopathy.

Are you a professional who wants more training from Dr. Roseann? 

Purchase her book, Teletherapy Toolkit™: Therapist Handbook for Treating Children and Teens

If you are a business or organization that needs proactive guidance to support employee mental health or an organization looking for a brand representative, check out Dr. Roseann’s professional speaking page to see how we can work together. 

Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

© Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2021

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