Executive function challenges and learning: 6 ways to help your middle-schooler

By Amanda Morin

Executive Functioning Issues and Learning: 6 Ways to Help Your Middle-Schooler, girl doing homework at home

At a glance

  • Some kids with executive function challenges have trouble thinking flexibly.

  • The more complicated schoolwork of middle school may feel overwhelming to your child.

  • There are ways to help middle-schoolers improve executive function skills.

If your child has trouble with executive function, learning difficulties may become more obvious in middle school. It’s a bumpy time for kids anyway. The more help and support you can offer your child, the smoother the middle school years will be.

Learning challenge #1: Trouble planning

Your child’s English teacher has assigned a book report. But after an hour of working on it, your child is still stuck on the first few sentences.

The role of : Kids may have difficulty creating a plan for getting from the beginning to the end of the assignment.

How to help: Show your child how to use a graphic organizer, such as a concept tree or a mind map. Your child can use these tools to put thoughts on paper before beginning to write.

Learning challenge #2: Inflexibility

You try to help with long division using a different technique than the teacher. Your child gets frustrated and insists it has to be done the other way — even though both approaches seem confusing.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids who struggle with executive function can have trouble thinking flexibly and changing the way they approach a problem.

How to help: Ask if the teacher would show your child different ways to approach the same type of problem. Your child will then have a teacher-approved “bag of tricks.” It might also help to learn the teacher’s preferred technique and reinforce that strategy at home.

Learning challenge #3: Poor working memory

Your child reads a chapter of a book but is unable to summarize what happened.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids often have weak working memory skills, making it hard for them to keep information in mind long enough to use it.

How to help: Use active reading strategies like highlighting key words and writing notes in the margins. Encourage your child to stop after every paragraph or two to take notes. Later these notes can be compiled to summarize the chapter.

Learning challenge #4: Not monitoring their work

Your child makes the same careless math error on every homework problem, even after you checked the first one and pointed out the error.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids often have trouble their work and recognizing when the same mistake has been repeated.

How to help: Help your child create a checklist of what needs to be double-checked on assignments. It can be as simple as asking, Did I follow all the directions on this problem?

Learning challenge #5: Trouble with time-management

Your child has long-term projects due in three different subjects. Instead of staggering the work, your child tries to do them all a few days before they’re due.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids may have trouble prioritizing tasks and estimating how much time a project will take.

How to help: Ask if your child’s teacher would provide a project calendar that breaks down the project into smaller pieces due each week. A points system could encourage your child to complete these smaller steps on time. Eventually, your child can create the calendar.

Learning challenge #6: Not understanding other viewpoints

The teacher reports that your child can be rude and dismissive of other students’ ideas when working in groups.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids who struggle with executive function can have a hard time understanding other people’s points of view and opinions different from their own.

How to help: Role-play scenarios in which you pretend to be a classmate. Use active listening skills, such as making eye contact and asking your child to clarify things when necessary. Also, let your child practice “I” statements: “I have trouble understanding people when they talk fast.”

Middle school involves a lot of juggling that your child may not have encountered before. It can be tricky for a child with executive function challenges to adapt. But there are strategies you can try at home to help with organization, flexible thinking, and other skills.

Key takeaways

  • Your child’s teacher may be able to help come up with strategies for homework.

  • Calendars, checklists, and note-taking can all help students stay organized.

  • Role-playing can help kids learn how to successfully interact with others.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.