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Can Dyslexia Make It Hard for Kids to Start and Finish Their Work?

By Bob Cunningham, EdM

Question: My daughter has dyslexia and often has trouble starting and finishing her work. Her teacher says those are executive functioning issues. But couldn’t they be due to her difficulties with reading and writing?

Answer:

This is a great question, and a tough one to answer. Starting and finishing work certainly require executive functions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your daughter has . Her dyslexia could well be the cause of her difficulties. Let me explain.

Dyslexia is complex. It can affect people in different ways. Most researchers agree, though, that there is one defining feature of dyslexia. That feature is trouble with .

Some experts point to other difficulties, too. One is trouble with working memory—an executive function that’s key to learning. Another is trouble with visual attention (the ability to select visual information that’s important, and filter out the rest).

These aspects of dyslexia could absolutely cause her to have trouble starting and finishing work. Frustration can also play a role. Trouble with reading and writing can be discouraging, making it hard to stay motivated.

Could your daughter also be struggling to focus on information, hold it in working memory and organize her thoughts? That’s possible, too.

Knowing the cause of a child’s learning challenges is important. A diagnosis or identification can help parents get the best help possible. But it can’t always neatly explain what’s happening when that child sits down to do work and has trouble with it.

That’s why the most important thing to focus on is whether your daughter gets the helps she needs, rather than the label of what’s causing her trouble.

I should also mention that “executive functioning issues” isn’t actually a formal diagnosis. Experts don’t yet agree that it’s a separate condition. Some think it is, while others believe these issues only appear along with other conditions.

Here’s where understanding what’s at play can get even trickier. Many kids have more than one learning and thinking difference. For example, dyslexia and are two that commonly co-occur.

Each of these conditions can involve problems with executive function. For kids with both dyslexia and ADHD, it can be hard to figure out which of their difficulties are coming from which condition.

When it comes to executive function, there are two other things I’d like to point out. First, there are many kids with dyslexia who have strong executive functioning skills. Second, executive functioning skills play a vital role in how all kids learn. (This includes how they learn to read and write.)

Because of that, some schools are beginning to look at ways to help build executive functioning skills in all their students. And you can help build them in your child at home, too.

The more your child uses her executive functioning skills, the stronger they’ll become. Give her opportunities to practice focusing, thinking flexibly and keeping information in mind.

Also, encourage her to reflect on her actions and responses to things. Help her recognize the need for executive functions in what she’s doing. That includes pausing, considering her options and goals and interrupting automatic reactions.

When it comes to doing homework, it’s important to provide “just enough” support for her executive functioning skills. Work with her to identify potential distractions. Create a space for homework that will help her focus. Help her break down assignments into smaller chunks. You may also want to build in short breaks while she’s working.

Then, gradually remove those supports as her skills develop. This way you’ll continually challenge her executive functioning skills to an appropriate degree.

Finally, if you think your child might have executive functioning issues along with dyslexia, here are some steps to consider:

  • See if your child’s last evaluation looked at executive function. If not, you may want to request a re-evaluation. Many schools won’t do one if it’s been less than a year since the last evaluation, however.

  • Learn more about why some kids with executive functioning issues have trouble with starting and completing tasks.

  • If she has an IEP, look to see if it’s addressing her difficulties with starting, finishing and planning. If it isn’t, you can call a meeting with the IEP team to ask about adding supports or services.

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