5 things I wish people knew about parenting a child with executive function challenges

I remember when we first started to see signs of disorganization in our son, Michael. He struggled to organize his schoolwork and finish tests. He also found it hard to remember things.

When we learned that Michael had trouble with executive function, everything started to make sense. We began to figure out what we needed to do each day to help our son better manage his challenges.

Here are five things I wish everyone knew about parenting a child with executive function challenges.

1. It takes patience.

Understanding how trouble with executive function affects your child is really important. For us, we learned from our son’s half-done papers, books that had been forgotten, and last-minute announcements like, “Mom, this project is due tomorrow!”

Getting mad doesn’t help. I know this firsthand because I used to get mad and frustrated when Michael didn’t do things that seemed so logical and easy to me. That approach just didn’t work.

Over time I’ve developed more patience. I started to understand that his mind processes things differently. Without understanding how executive function works, being patient can be a big challenge.

2. It helps to make a schedule for the week.

One of the things I learned very early on about executive function challenges is the importance of a schedule. By that I mean a planner that can be written on and kept in a prominent place so everyone can see it.

The schedule should show all practices, homework and project due dates, tests, family commitments and social activities. By having everything on paper, it’s easier to help your child meet the demands of the week in an organized and calm fashion.

Before we had a schedule in place, Michael would study on the day of a test on his way to school. Now we plan for the entire week every Sunday.

3. It’s important to write lists with very specific steps.

I learned how important lists were after watching my son struggle to stay organized. Things like remembering to read all the directions for a school assignment or bringing home certain folders just didn’t happen.

That’s why we make lists that have every step he needs to do to complete his work. Things you might not think to add — “read all directions,” “cross them off when you’ve done them,” and “check paper for mistakes” — are all on his list.

You can even create a checklist of things to bring home each day. It’s important to customize that list based on what your child needs and adapt it over time.

4. Social situations can be an issue.

Michael is literally the most social person I’ve ever met. But does he read social cues correctly? Not all the time. He has to work on them.

Sometimes, he’ll wonder why a friend said something in particular. Or he’ll wonder if someone’s mad at him because they didn’t answer in a certain way. He even used to ask people if they were still friends, because he felt he just needed to be sure.

This happens because executive function challenges can make it hard for him to organize subtle social information. For instance, he can struggle to understand the meaning behind what someone else says or does.

We talk a lot about situations like these. Together, we made a checklist of things he should think about before he asks someone a question. It’s gotten better, but he still has to work at social situations.

5. Kids with executive function challenges may need help seeing the bigger picture.

My son can have trouble seeing a situation in its entirety. Instead, he’ll focus on just one thing.

For example, years ago one of his teachers told me he interrupted a meeting she was having with the principal. He needed to ask a question about a paper (a question that had already been answered in class).

My son didn’t “see” anything except his need for an answer. He didn’t notice that the teacher was busy in a meeting or that she wanted privacy. Since then, we’ve taught Michael to look outside himself and “take notice.”

My son has come so far in managing his executive function challenges. It’s been four years since he was diagnosed. And executive function skills can change as children grow and mature.

Michael works very hard, and he’s had great success. He tested into the gifted program at school and gets straight A’s. But his challenges still affect his life every day. With a lot of understanding, however, we’ve learned how to support him.

See what a day in the life of a child with executive function challenges is like. And learn more about working memory.


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