A year to focus on executive function

It’s the hot phrase these days, isn’t it?  “Executive function”.  What does that even MEAN, right?  Literally it means “all of the skills needed to execute tasks to meet goals in life”.  And guess what?  My BigGuy doesn’t have any.  Seriously…

The thing is: I’ve spent the last year being angry with him for it.  Thinking he was lazy.  Thinking he was unmotivated.  I made both he and I upset for the better part of the last year; and my poor Girly was kind of left in the shadow of all of it.

I’m not proud, people.

But I own it, and I share it with you so you might take heart (and maybe change direction for everyone’s well-being like I did).  Ultimately I had to step back and realize that my sweet boy had problems that he needed help with.  They weren’t just executive function problems, either.  We had done such a wonderful job teaching him how to function more neurotypically than his diagnoses would dictate that even WE were convinced that he could function neurotypically.

Shame on us.

I’ve spent the better part of the spring processing the damage I’ve done to my sweet boy, my sweet girl, my family and myself in the process–exacerbated by the busy-ness of taking on other obligations and dealing with my own personal challenges in the adult world.  #hotmess  I took inventory of needs and priorities in the aftermath.  And I am putting the needs of my children in the forefront.  I’ve decided what will be outsourced and what I am willing to lead for other people’s children.  I feel good about what I’ve laid out, and I’m continuing to remind myself not to add anything else.  STICK TO THE PLAN is my current battlecry.

In all of that is a year to focus on executive function skills for BigGuy.  Understood.org gives a great mental picture of a day in the life of a kid with executive function problems.  It pretty much sums up life with my 14yo.  Except now replace his teacher, lunch room attendants and soccer coach with me, me and me.  Can you say “stress”?  For everyone.

The game plan is as follows:

We are going light on academic rigor. Not backward, just not high level (although he will have some high level/challenge studies through Science Olympiad).   Last year I felt like I was pushing him and as a result, he pushed back.  I realized that suddenly. learning was more about what I planned to teach to other people and wanted to impose on him than about his personal desires and drives.  I think this came about through my opening up to teach others and not balancing that well with my own family’s needs and lifestyle.  What I offer to people outside of my home next year is very different and tailored to fit my family’s needs and lifestyle first.  I even coordinated with other providers to ensure this and I feel really good about it.

Last year, I bought this wonderful, undated “planner” (which is somewhat of a misnomer) called “The Work-Smart Academic Planner“.  We will start with sections 1 (Understanding your Executive Skills profile) and 2 (Goal-setting). We will also use section 4 (undated daily/weekly/monthly planner pages). This will kick off our year.

Then, I am implementing a morning meeting each day to lay out the day, talk about what’s on the docket for the current day and what is coming up in the next 2-3 days that we might need to consider. We will do this with his planner in hand. He will also check his e-mails with me over his shoulder (mostly to keep him from getting off-task and onto YouTube or memes, but also to talk about how to respond or create appropriate e-mails). The goal is for him to run this meeting by the end of the year..

We will then incorporate the exercises in each of these books:

  • The Executive Functioning Workbook for Teens: Help for Unprepared, Late, and Scattered Teens“.  I love this because it walks the student through taking an inventory of themselves first and then walking them through exercises of their own.  A few of the early ones will be similar to those in Part 1 of the planner, but that’s fine. We will do the planner in the next week or so and then start this workbook in the fall. It will be good to have a “check in” to see if anything has changed.  Please note the verbiage here:  “if anything has changed”.  Not “if we improved” or “if we got worse”.  I think language has a big impact and we are pretty careful with language in our house.
  • Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs“.  This one will span 2 years for sure–possibly 3–and we will prioritize the sections by personal needs rather than work start to finish.  This is more for me to facilitate helping BigGuy (and possibly Girly) build habits as much as learn some skills.  They range from taking personal character inventory and relating to others to academics to practical living skills, vocational introspection, and problem-solving.  I want to do all of it at once.  GAH!

I’m definitely off-loading some of the coursework this year–especially since the goal is more about learning how to function in these environments (since many of the skills we are targeting would be necessary for any endeavor–including holding a job) rather than the actual content.  I don’t want him to be completely bored but I don’t want him to be challenged to where he can’t focus on building these other skills.  My teaching this year will be to pay for my kids outside-of-the-house lessons and activities with the rest going to the science team I coach (since we lost our sponsor *sniff, sniff*).

First, I will be helping him set up systems of organization (which the EF workbook for teens also does a bit).  After each class he is involved in, I will truly be the external frontal lobe—creating a mindset of time awareness by intermittently asking him what time it is and how much time he has before his next obligation (even if the next obligation is dinner), and what productive task could he do between now and then (building a mindset of productivity before play—even if it’s just putting away a pencil he sees out somewhere—building but starting small).

When he’s involved in a class, I personally will be managing his time and walking him through (using questions with a loving tone vs a parent/teacher tone) to help him 1) be aware of how much time he has until class, how much of that time will he used traveling, and then walking him through getting his things together in an unrushed manner. The brain is a pattern engine and I’m going to be breaking down the pattern of last-minute rush (which can be addictive and create procrastination) and building a calm and deliberate pattern of routines to prepare for things. I will also be checking in with him regularly about how all of this feels and how it feels different from how he used to do things, which he likes better, which does he feel benefits him more than the other… all of this builds the EF of “metacognition” (introspection and self-evaluation).

When he is involved in classes I will ask him what he brought, where those things are, what he got from the class, what he needs to remember from the class, where he wrote that down, etc. Again—this will be in “Coach” tone, not parent/teacher tone and PRIVATELY to help maintain his dignity.

I will have to set up routines that alter how everyone in the house operates. It occurs to me that I have often been a less-than-optimal role model for these things and we could all use help in one or more of these areas.  It only serves to benefit everyone.

Many parents would feel that this is doing too much for a child.  “They have to learn how to  do it on their own” is pretty much the first thing I’ve heard out of MANY. MANY parents mouths when I talk about providing support for kids in one way or another.   But the reality is that our kids go further in life when we can help them learn the skills they need.  Likening their current-day reality to our own experiences is just beyond ridiculous.  Girly knew how to operate a computer trackpad AT. THE. AGE. OF. TWO.   One of BigGuy’s friend’s exemplified how outdated parental generation thinking was in their understanding of the MANY gender-related identities and how easily those concepts came to our kids and not the adults.

People.  They do not live in our world.  We live in theirs.

And not fluently, folks.  The focus of my Master’s in teaching is Educational Technology and I promise you this is not news.  The major challenge has been how to lead a generation of digital natives into learning about and how to exploit technologies we barely understand as digital immigrants.  It takes a special set of teaching skills to guide kids into territory we are not fluent with.  But you have to acknowledge that this is what is happening–that they are going to far exceed our knowledge base.

We need to model foundation skills for them.  So much has changed in our culture (and our physical health) and I have to wonder how much of it has affected these foundation skills.  The brain is a pattern engine.  We can fight them to learn “the hard way” or we can empower them by working with them to build those patterns now, so they can move forward with more peace.

And so can we parents.

There may be more as I read through these:

I will let you know how this progresses, of course.  Much love, mamas.




1 thought on “A year to focus on executive function

  1. I wish I could give you a hug. I just pulled my 11-year-old son from private school. I started reading your blog on deschooling…now you’re talking about EF! Blessings on you as you walk this road… You’re paving the way for us behind you… Thank you. Are you familiar with a functional neurologist? That’s something I am also researching. Is there someway I could subscribe to your blog??


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