Practice makes perfect for executive function

Executive function challenges are tough. I’ve watched the most dedicated and caring parents and the best teachers break down as they try to make sense of what’s going on with kids who struggle with organization, planning, and time management.

It’s so easy to mistakenly see a child who has trouble with executive function as careless, confused, lazy, or rude. And it’s so hard to be empathetic if that’s what you think.

The conversations I’ve had with kids tell me that they’re confused, too. They care about getting things done. They might even know how to get things done. But they never seem to actually get it done. And they feel the effects in and out of school.

Smart, social, and athletic, but “unreliable”

One of my teen students — let’s call him Sam — had significant executive function challenges. I remember Sam well because he drove me and his other teachers crazy. He was smart, social and athletic. In class, he seemed interested. But he never handed in work. He was likeable, but other kids didn’t include him because he didn’t do what he said he would do. Everyone said Sam was just “unreliable.”

Sam’s teachers tried a lot of different strategies in elementary and middle school. But the strategies were often changed and used off and on. By the start of high school, Sam had only a few friends. He used to be one of the best players on his sport teams, but his play became inconsistent. Sam knew he let people down a lot, so he didn’t try as hard any more.

Practice, practice, practice

Having worked with many kids like Sam, I’ve found that the best way to address executive function challenges is repeated practice of simple strategies that can meet changing needs over time.

For example, young kids who learn to use a picture schedule can learn to use a calendar to plan long-term assignments as they get older. A child who learns to use a binder with different folders can learn to use folders for email later on. The same basic ideas behind these strategies can grow with the child as life gets more complex.

Practice is the key. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, journalist Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill. He gives examples of high-level musicians and computer programmers.

Of course I’m not saying that a child has to spend 10,000 hours practicing a single strategy. But I do think we often seriously underestimate the amount of practice it takes for a child to get really good at using a strategy. Sometimes, we change approaches too soon.

Organization, planning, and time management don’t always come naturally. A child needs to practice a lot for a strategy to become second nature. It’s up to us as parents and teachers to give our kids the time and encouragement needed to get there.

As for Sam, he ended up doing pretty well in high school with help from his parents and a few key teachers. He chose a college that had a good support program. He liked college and made friends who, in his words, “appreciate [his] sense of time.” He graduated in five years, and he’s now working at establishing a career. How did he do it? It came down to consistently practicing strategies for getting the most important stuff done on time.


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