Brain Awareness Week 2017: Executive Functioning in the Classroom

March 15, 2017

In honor of Brain Awareness Week, I thought it appropriate to talk about Executive Functioning in the classroom. Parents of children and teens who have been diagnosed with ADHD know all about kids’ executive function challenges at home. You ask your nine-year-old son to clean up his room, and an hour later, in the middle of watching his second episode of The Big Bang Theory, he says that he forgot you asked him to do it.

The classroom presents a much bigger challenge to students with ADHD. To do well in a mainstream school, kids need sustained focus, have to understand multiple-step directions, have to make frequent transitions, and must do lots of written tasks. These are not strengths for many ADHD kids. Although parents can’t change the way kids are taught in school, they can prep their children and partner with teachers to improve their academic skills in the classroom. Here are a few strategies parents can use at home to help their child with executive function challenges do better in school.

Be Prepared: The Long View

The Boy Scout motto has clear relevance for the parents of children with ADHD. Kids with executive weakness almost always perform better in school when their parents take an active role in their learning. Parents should meet with teachers at the start of the school year to introduce their child—sharing clinical evaluation reports and written impressions from previous teachers. They should ask about the core curriculum, the types of assignments students will need to complete in class and for homework, and the organizational systems that teachers will require. If they know these things, they will be good co-managers of their child’s learning.

Be Prepared: The Short View

Be all-in with your child’s weekly workload and tasks. It will dramatically improve her odds of succeeding. As Martha Denckla, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, has stated, the phrase “on your own” is a death knell for kids with ADHD. It is better for parents to err on the side of over-management and micro-management of their kids’ homework assignments and test prep. Track your child’s homework assignments, dates for tests and quizzes, missing assignments, and grade-point averages in all courses. E-mail, text, or phone the teacher weekly, or meet with her face-to-face. Research shows that frequent communication with teachers leads to better academic outcomes and fewer homework-related frustrations.

Hold a Weekly Meeting

One of the most effective methods I’ve found in helping parents stay on top of their kid’s academic performance is to meet at least once a week with their youngster to review grades and to see whether assignments have been completed. Although many parents look over this information on their own from time to time, such unilateral performance reviews are less effective than scheduled parent-student review sessions.

Weekly meetings prevent the parent from encountering those “missing work” surprises. Meetings can be held with minimal resistance from your child if 1) They are conducted at the same time each week (allowing them to become part of the kid’s weekly routine) and 2) there is an incentive offered to the youngster—extra time on the computer that evening or the opportunity to choose what the family has for dinner that night.

Get Ready the Night Before

Rushing around in the morning, looking for that plastic ruler or blue magic marker that your child needs for science or art class, can frazzle him before he steps out the door. Avoid this stress by reviewing with your child, the evening before, everything he needs to have with him for school the next day. Then make sure these materials are stowed away in his backpack. In addition, because kids with executive weaknesses lose things far more often than their executive-skilled peers, parents should always have on hand a surplus of key materials (glue sticks, rulers, pens and pencils, flash drives) the child needs in class.

Give a Reminder in the A.M.

Although some parent reminders and cues are forgotten by the time the student reaches school, they can go a long way in helping kids remember to turn in completed assignments and avoid engaging in behaviors with peers that can cause them social problems. Even though mornings are frenzied in most homes, parents should grab a moment —ensuring they have their child’s full attention and eye contact—to impart a key message or two about things to focus on that day. Supplement the spoken message with sticky-note reminders posted on your child’s assignment book or three-ring binder.

Cut Down on Writing:

Because many students with ADHD struggle with written language tasks, parents should encourage teachers to assess their child’s knowledge and skill levels in other ways. Ask the teacher if your child can tell her what he knows about a topic instead of submitting a written essay, or take multiple-choice or short-answer tests instead of essay exams.

Another alternative is for the student to present a slide show on an assigned topic, instead of a written report. Although such accommodations are commonly included in an IEP or a 504 Plan (ensuring that they must be implemented by classroom staff), many parents are able to arrange for these supports by talking with the teachers. Parents who anticipate executive function difficulties, and manage them effectively with these strategies, will reduce the frustration their children experience during the school year, not to mention help them succeed in school.

Until next week, Be Wise!

Excerpted from Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students, by CHRISTOPHER KAUFMAN, PH.D. (Brookes Publishing). Kaufman is a certified school psychologist, with over 25 years of experience working in school and clinical settings.