Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Keeping It All Together During Online Learning – Helping Kids with their Executive Functioning

Written by:
Andrew Luceno
Registered Provisional Psychologist
April 7, 2020

When Executive Functioning Breaks Down

With online learning being the mode of program delivery for the foreseeable future, many caregivers are struggling to help their child get their work done. In some cases, caregivers are forced to leave their child at home unsupervised. In the best-case scenario, there’s an adult at home who can structure some meaningful schoolwork and study time to help their child keep up. But, it’s not always a simple task. You may find that your child:

  • struggles to prioritize, structure, and get work done in the right order (i.e., planning)
  • that they take a long time to get started (i.e., task initiation)
  • perhaps they may have difficulty focusing (i.e., attention) on a task for any length of time when there are so many distractions around. 

Planning, task initiation, and attention are processes called executive functions. They are being put to the test during this unique online learning situation in which we find ourselves.

Many children with good thinking (cognitive) abilities and academic skills struggle to get tasks started and meet deadlines. Regardless of how bright they are, they have difficulty doing schoolwork and staying on top of tasks – especially outside of the normal classroom routine. One possible explanation is that the mental processes that enable us to plan ahead, start and finish tasks, and manage our time (i.e., executive functions) need work. Executive functioning can affect what we do in the present and also how we plan and organize the future. These skills influence:

  • our ability to coordinate multiple tasks at the same time,
  • how we interact with others,
  • how well we control our emotions, and,
  • whether or not we learn from past mistakes.

For good reason, some experts refer to executive functioning as the “brain boss.”  

When there is a problem with executive functioning, a child will often demonstrate similar issues across all of their subjects. They may have difficulty starting work, staying focused on tasks, completing work, and noting down deadlines. These children may be seen as “lazy” or “unmotivated”. The reality is that they don’t know how to get started, what to do first, and how to create a learning environment for themselves free of distractions. Supporting children in developing their executive functioning can help them get past these barriers so that they can show their best work.

Children aren’t born with executive functioning skills – they’re born with the potential to develop them.  So, fortunately, caregivers and teachers can help children develop executive functioning skills that are essential to success. Have you ever cooked a meal for a lot of people? Do you ever wonder how all those food dishes magically appear on the table at the right time? Planning to feed a group of people at once takes executive functioning: 

  • you need to buy ingredients, 
  • clean the house, 
  • set the table, 
  • preheat the oven, 
  • start cooking food at the right time so that it comes out hot, and 
  • make sure there’s enough to go around.  
  • You may even prepare a little extra food in case someone unexpected shows up. Having weak executive functioning is a lot like cooking a frozen turkey. You may have all the ingredients you need (the turkey here represents good cognitive abilities and academic skills), but without planning well in advance - nobody’s eating the main dish!  

I like using the preparing meals example for executive functioning because

  1. people seem to get it and
  2. we can use meal preparation as a strategy to teach children executive functioning skills at home.

Going forward, the focus of this article will be on the executive functions of attention, task initiation and planning along with some strategies to support those areas.     

Attention

Many children struggle to focus without any obvious distractions and the home study environment may create additional challenges. Children may have access to devices (e.g., tablet, smartphone, computer), the television, snacks in the pantry, siblings around them, toys, and their bed! From the child’s perspective, there are many interesting things to do besides schoolwork so caregivers need to work extra hard to structure a suitable whole-day learning environment at home. Distance learning is somewhat new territory for most of us, which means we might need to support our kids in unique ways. Structuring the learning environment so that our kids can do their best is a great start. 

Consider the following suggestions:

  • Try to make your child’s online learning school day look like a typical one. Encourage them to follow the regular timetable, sleep at the same time, and wake up as they usually would. Children with inconsistent routines may really struggle to focus and keep their emotions in check (we’ve all been there!), so a consistent routine is really important.
  • Create a distraction-free study environment. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to remove distractions from our lives completely, but we can try. Talk to your child about the distractions they face when trying to work from home (e.g., YouTube, Snapchat), and make a plan to minimize them. You might decide to hold onto their smartphones during the school day or use a tech solution to block certain websites when children need to focus most. 
  • Have your child work in a well-lit and organized place where you can check in on them periodically. When children are supervised and have a clear understanding of the expectations, they are more likely to stay on task. Consider having your child work at the kitchen table instead of in their bedroom, where they will be harder to supervise.

  • Your child may benefit from using sound-dampening headphones or earplugs to block out distracting noises around the house – especially when the whole family is physically isolating.

Task Initiation

For most children, task initiation is the biggest stumbling block to task completion. Especially in an online learning environment, not having an adult to help with this step could mean not starting at all. Many adults struggle to understand why their child has such a difficult time getting started on tasks (i.e., procrastination). We might even tell them, “If you could just get started, it won’t take much time at all – you’ll see!”  But there are many possible reasons why children feel paralyzed at this step. Next time your child gets stuck on getting started, ask them the following: 

  • Do you know how to get started (e.g., what comes first)? 
  • Do you have what you need to be successful (e.g., materials/resources, assignment details)? 
  • Can you handle this task (e.g., have you learned what’s necessary to do this)? 
  • Are you worried that you’ll fail? 

If a child struggles with any of those questions, it’s time to help them. In time, we should hope that our child will think about, respond to, and address those questions themselves, leading to more independence. Then always reinforce the concept of  “Done is better than perfect because perfect is never done.” 

Next, work with the brain – not against it. Limit the amount of time your child will spend sitting and working on a task to 20 to 25 minutes (before taking a quick break), sometimes more depending on their age. There are two reasons why this is important. First, limiting the amount of time promotes really focusing on task initiation and not sustained attention. Second, it is easier for a child to get started on a task if they know they can get through it quickly, rather than feeling it is just the beginning of a long, drawn-out process. While 20-minutes does not seem like a very long time, we should remember that our attention resources run out, and breaks help us recharge.

Finally, check-in with your child periodically to provide motivation and track their progress. You may help them brainstorm a starting point to get them going which can be especially helpful when they have to complete writing tasks. Another option is for your child to speak to someone familiar with the task (e.g., teacher, classmate) and to ask them how they would recommend getting started. Either way, it’s important that our child feels comfortable enough to ask for help when they need it. Helping your child ask for help (e.g., through role-play) is a great strategy to support them in developing their independence.

Planning

Planning and prioritizing are inseparable. Helping your child determine what comes first and how to get it done could make all the difference between smooth sailing and a lot of frustration and stress.  

Work with your child to determine which task needs to get done first and if there’s enough time to complete it realistically. Having some kind of visual planning system is essential (e.g., large whiteboard or calendar, using Post-it notes to sequence the planning steps, using technology like digital calendars). A visual system will help with goal and reward setting, and create balance throughout the school week. Next, get very familiar with the power of chunking tasks – breaking them down into smaller and manageable parts. Chunking helps children:

  • set goals, 
  • anticipate setbacks, 
  • better estimate how long an assignment will take, and 
  • reduce some of the stress that may be experienced when taking on an overwhelming task. 

Research supports chunking as a motivator because as children complete small steps, their brains reward them with dopamine. Dopamine is the happy chemical the brain releases when we receive a text message, or when playing a favourite videogame. So, there are practical and neurological benefits to effective planning strategies.            

Teaching Executive Functioning Skills

Children need to be taught executive functioning skills. In fact, the area of the brain primarily responsible for executive functioning (i.e., the prefrontal cortex) is not fully developed until around the age of 25-years. That means that caregivers can help children by looking for ways to teach executive functioning skills at home – whether it’s through a school assignment or a household chore. We can really help our kids by giving them some practice with removing distractions, initiating tasks, and planning when the stakes are low, and they can afford to make mistakes. Giving children planning tasks around the house (e.g., planning a meal, cleaning their room), playing games as a family (e.g., UNO) with distractions removed, banning any kind of device from the dinner table (it’s important that adults model this), and encouraging your child to take any big task and break it down into small steps, are all ways we can constantly reinforce the development of executive functioning skills at home. What’s great about practicing those skills at home is that they are transferable to all areas of life. 

For some quick facts about executive functioning skills, have a look at these Quick Facts on Executive Functions from Childmind.org.  Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare has been a go-to book for many parents who want to help their kids be more efficient and successful through developing executive functioning skills. Finally, Harvard University has developed some free activities you can use at home to help your child in this area to.: It’s important to consider that executive functioning deficits are often standing in the way of our child’s ability to do their best. Still, we can help them develop these skills to be more successful.