Executive Function in Times of Transition

09/14/2016 05:22 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2016

Transitions can be extremely difficult for students who have ADHD or other executive functioning weaknesses. Many parents will remember their older students as having had difficulty with transition throughout their lives. Theirs were often the kids hardest to get to bed and hardest to wake up, the kids who had difficulty joining a group of other kids already playing together or leaving a playdate when it was over. These kids often couldn’t get off their screens of any kind without a battle and they always took forever to put on their socks and shoes to leave the house. When asked to stop whatever they were doing to complete a chore, they always made a fuss, ignored the request or procrastinated until someone else took care of it. Transitioning for children with executive functioning weaknesses is much more difficult than it is for their peers.

It’s not surprising then that students with executive functioning weaknesses are often most at risk of getting derailed during the major times of educational transition, particularly the transition to middle school from elementary, to high school from middle and to college from secondary school. It’s extremely difficult for students who are already suffering from delayed maturation of executive functioning skills to adapt to a new level of expectation — a transition that’s hard for anyone — when they have been just barely functioning effectively at the old level of expectation. This can cause a great deal of frustration, with often very negative outcomes — new conflicts with parents and teachers, bad grades, etc. Even more concerning, any decline in achievement can worsen a student’s feelings of inadequacy, among other negative self perceptions.

Parents and teachers need to be cognizant of the particular support that these students need during a time of transition. Please see my related article: http://yellowbrick.me/5-tips-for-parents-of-college-students-with-adhd/ for ideas to help with the college transition. Below are suggestions for parents of secondary school children and adolescents.

What parents can do:

  1. Connect with teachers as soon as possible. Give them a helpful head’s up about your child’s specific areas of interest, outside activities, strengths and areas of difficulty. Let them know that you are on the same team willing to play an active role in your child’s academic life.
  2. Set up clear expectations at home that match the newer and more challenging expectations at school. There simply may be less time for video games or hanging out with friends after school. That does not mean these should be sacrificed completely, however. See number 3.
  3. Set reasonable expectations. When an assignment becomes too frustrating, lay off. Rather than making your child sit at the table until homework is finished, encourage him to write an email to his teacher and explain what it is he can’t do or doesn’t understand. Any reasonable teacher will appreciate that sometimes certain tasks are too much for some students, even if they can accomplish similar tasks at other times. Students with ADHD or executive functioning weaknesses can’t always produce at a consistent level.
  4. Schedule homework effectively. Homework may have been simple enough in elementary school to be completed after dinner, but in middle school, chances are there is more. After a quick snack, the hour or hours immediately after school (or after the after-school sports or activities) can often be the most productive. When students who have executive functioning difficulties are tired, they are even less likely to be able to focus their attention and even simple things can take exceedingly long to complete. That said, consider what timing works for your child. Some students need to get a bit of exercise after a long day at school. But this doesn’t have to mean leaving the house from 3:00 to 6:00 to play basketball at the park. Generally, completing homework before other fun or relaxing activities can make for a much calmer night, for everyone. If parents’ work schedules don’t allow them to be available during this time, consider another strategy for support. Maybe an older high school student who wants to make some money can come over and do homework with your 6th or 7th grader after school. Maybe a quick FaceTime chat from work with your high schooler when he or she gets home as a practice to check in and get him or her started on the work load for the night.
  5. Very importantly, be there for your child, but don’t micromanage. Figure out how much support your child wants and will accept, and give her that. If her teachers and/or grades begin to show that that support is not enough for success, work together to determine the right amount of scaffolding that she needs and help to put it in place. Support is not micromanagement — it is simply helping her with the aspects of executive function that come most difficultly to her. If she wants you to time her for a quiz, time her. If she wants you to help write out a nightly schedule, do that. If she wants you to stay out of it all together, think about your relationship and consider finding outside support that will invariably be less fraught than working with you. (It’s always a great idea to enlist the services of a qualified educational therapist to support these students throughout their transitions and beyond). Gentle reminders, quick looks at planners, the occasional email to a teacher is always okay. And certainly monitoring that the homework is getting done, by keeping them company or a having a watchful eye across the room, is fine. If your child prefers to work in his room, however, certainly let him. Try to assure there are no electronics in there at the time, but otherwise, let him do his work in peace. You don’t need to check his assignments off at the end, unless he agrees that that’s helpful. Mostly this is his job to manage. Students must feel trusted in order to believe in themselves. Micromanaging sends the opposite message, suggesting they are not capable of doing their work on their own.

Finally, working with a qualified educational therapist is always helpful for students who face executive functioning challenges. If you think you or your child might benefit, please visit my website at www.hayleyzinnrowthorn.com or my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/REALizeLearning/ for information and/or to arrange a free phone consultation.

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