Executive Function Skills: What Are They and How Do Kids Build Them
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Executive function skills: What are they and how can we help kids build them?

Messy backpacks. Forgotten lunches. Missing assignments. How can we help our kids get organized this school year? What strategies can we use to support kids with ADHD and other learning differences? 

In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra get back-to-school tips from Brendan Mahan, an executive function coach and host of the ADHD Essentials podcast. Brendan explains what executive function skills are — and how we can help kids build them. Learn why we might be asking too much of our kids sometimes, and how to reframe our thinking around these skills. Plus, get Brendan’s tips for helping kids get back into school routines. 

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Episode transcript

Amanda: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It." On this podcast, we offer perspective, stories, and advice for and from people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences. We talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. I'm Amanda Morin.

Gretchen: And I'm Gretchen Vierstra.

Amanda: And this episode is for all those folks out there like me saying oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. How is it the start of a new school year already? How is summer over? And I don't know what I'm going to do because my kid doesn't know how to do school anymore.

Gretchen: Yes, this transition can be especially stressful for parents of kids with ADHD and other learning differences. Maybe you had your systems down last year, like how to get your backpack organized or where your child does their homework after school. But will your child remember those things? And are those even the systems you need this year?

Amanda: That's why we wanted to talk to Brendan Mahan. He's an ADHD and executive function coach. He's also got his own podcast, "ADHD Essentials."

Gretchen: All right. Let's dive right in.

Amanda: So Brendan, as an executive function coach, I would imagine that this start of the school year is a really busy time for you. What are you hearing from parents as they're facing down the beginning of a new school year?

Brendan: It varies. Sometimes it's really specific. Like my kid struggled last year and I'm worried about how they're going to do it this year. Sometimes it's my kid's going into middle school, what do I do? Or my kid's going into high school, what do I do? Or I want my kid to get in a college and it's right around the corner — help. Like that. It's that sort of thing, right? But a lot of what I talk to parents about is like pump the brakes. Like, your kid is going to be OK. The school year hasn't even started that much yet.

Amanda: OK. So I want to dig into all of that. But first, could you just explain what we're even referring to when we talk about executive function skills?

Brendan: So executive function is the ability to do something, right? It's like the ability to execute. So planning and decision making, being able to correct errors and troubleshoot, being able to navigate it when things change and shift, when expectations are different and being able to handle that adjustment. It's understanding time and our relationship to it. It's sustained attention and task initiation. There's emotional control and self-awareness and self-understanding. It's kind of a broad category. There's a lot hiding underneath it.

But it boils down to being able to do the thing. It's those adulting skills that, for one, we don't really expect kids to have yet anyway because it's developmental. But also we want them to have it before they're supposed to have it. And that causes its own sort of challenges.

Gretchen: So I wonder, do kids tend to slide in executive function skills over the summer?

Brendan: I don't know that they slide. I think the academic context of executive function slide. Sometimes we're still using some of those executive functions during the summer. Sometimes we're using more of some of them. You might have a kid who struggles to keep himself organized at school, right? But he's been playing with Legos all summer long and his Lego organizational skills are on point. And maybe that transfers to the classroom and maybe it doesn't.

Summer is often when kids are much more self-directed. They're much more curious and exploratory. There's more space for that. So that stuff is going to grow when it may have slid during the school year, because they didn't get the opportunities that they might get during the summer.

Amanda: I'm going to go back to something you said, though, because it piqued my curiosity. We expect kids to have executive function skills before they're developmentally ready for it. Why do we do that? Or how do we stop doing that? Or what should we be doing instead?

Brendan: I'll go for all of it. Like, how big of a jerk do you want me to be?

Amanda: Realistic. Let's go with realistic.

Brendan: The answer to that, and this is me being a jerk, is kids not having executive functioning skills is inconvenient.

Gretchen: Right.

Brendan: Right? Like it makes our lives harder that they can't follow 10-step directions.

Gretchen: Brendan, can you give a kind of a general overview of what skills I should expect of typical kids in like grade school and up? So I'm not asking for things I shouldn't get.

Brendan: So breaking it down into, like, elementary school, middle school, and high school. It's at least academically how we break things down. So we should expect elementary school kids to be able to pay attention. But there's high school kids who have trouble with that, right? So like, that's kind of an illustration on executive functioning challenges. But broadly speaking, we're expecting elementary school kids to pay attention, control their behavior and impulses, follow one- to two-step directions, and be able to change their behavior to follow rules as necessary.

Amanda: The kindergarten teacher in me is going to pop in here and say, "pay attention" is a really like nebulous one, right? Because when I was teaching kindergarten, it was like, pay attention for 10 minutes was about as much as they could could do, right? So I just want to caveat and say, yes, pay attention. I also think about how old the kid in front of you is, for how long they can pay attention.

Brendan: True. And absolutely like 10 minutes for a kindergarten kid, and sort of add a few minutes per grade level kind of thing. But also, what does "pay attention" mean? Right? I'm really glad you called that out. Because for some teachers, "pay attention" means sitting with their back against the back of the chair and their legs against the bottom of the chair and their hands folded on their desk and looking at the teacher and — and like, I did that in school. And I did not know what was going on. Because my imagination is way cooler than anything my teacher had to say.

Amanda: It may be time to narrate for our listeners that Brendan is standing up as he records, and I'm sitting a swivel chair and swiveling back and forth. Yet we are still paying attention.

Gretchen: We're paying attention. So then what about middle schoolers that I know Amanda and I have.

Brendan: And I do, too. Yeah. For the middle school kids, we want them to start to show that they can think in order to plan an action. We want them to be able to plan ahead to solve problems, even. Right? Like this is a problem that I might encounter when I do my social studies project or whatever. We want them to be able to follow and manage a daily routine. So an elementary school kid not knowing where they're going on a given day? We might not worry about that too much. Middle school kids, we start to go, oh, wait a minute, you should know what's happening. I want to caveat this, though, because some middle school schedules are a nightmare.

Gretchen: A day, B day, short day.

Brendan: Yeah. We also for middle school kids, we want to see them beginning to develop this skill of being able to modify their behavior across changing environments. Do we expect to see this because it's developmentally appropriate? Or do we expect to see this because that's how middle school works and it's necessary that they can? I don't know.

Gretchen: It makes me think I'm asking too much.

Amanda: Makes me think I'm asking too much, too.

Brendan: Yeah. One of the things that I often talk about with my clients, with my coaching groups, is when a kid is struggling, we want to wonder: Is it the fish or is it the water? Right? Like, is this kid struggling because there's something going on with them? Or is it the kid's struggling because there's something going on with the environment that they're in? Probably it's both. And oftentimes we focus on the fish instead of looking at the water. So I tend to champion like, let's address the environment that the kid's in.

Amanda: As a parent staring down the school year, what do I do right now to start bolstering those skills?

Brendan: So if school hasn't started yet, I might be talking about things we can do during the summer to kind of get ourselves squared away so that the beginning of school goes more smoothly, right? Start going to bed a little bit earlier now, so that when school starts and you have to go to bed a lot earlier, you can make that transition more effectively. Or give your kids like a few more responsibilities for the time being, so that when school starts, you can take those extra responsibilities away and replace them with the school responsibilities that are coming. Which doesn't mean they should be writing essays at home. It just means that they should be doing a little bit more in terms of chores or something, so that they're used to not being as relaxed and on as much screen time as they were in the summer.

And if school is already started, then it's like trust the teacher, right? Like let's communicate with the teacher. Let's find out what it is that they're doing in their classroom. Are they seeing challenges or red flags already for your kid, or maybe orange flags? Is there anything we need to be on top of right now? So don't wait until the problem happens, like solve the problem in advance instead of solving it after things have gone haywire. And pivoting really quick, because one thing I didn't do is I didn't talk about high school.

Gretchen: Oh, yeah. High schools.

Brendan: So emerging skills in high school: We expect them to start to be able to think and behave flexibly. We also want to see them begin to organize and plan projects and social activities. Now, social activities, yes. But like, why do they have to be able to organize and plan projects? Because that's how high school works, right? And that skill has been building since middle school, maybe even since late elementary school. But now we're starting to expect more independence and it should be an easier process.

We also want to see them adapt to inconsistent rules. And it happens in lots of ways, right? Like I just left English class and now I'm in math class and I can't shut up because I was talking a lot in English and it was fine because we were doing group projects and now it's a solo thing in math, right? That's hard. But we start to expect that. Yeah, you have like three-minute hallway time and then you got to be ready to go behaving totally different for a new subject.

Gretchen: That three-minute time is like, I've got to say, as a teacher, even I had trouble switching, right? You're going from one class to the next and there's no downtime to readjust. That's tough.

Brendan: Yeah, but that's time on learning, right? That's like you've got to be learning, learning, learning. Which is silly, because we know we need time for our minds to wander in order to cement that learning and sort of lock it in. And if we don't give kids any time that's downtime to have their minds wander and be a little spacey, they're not going to be able to anchor in that learning as effectively as they might otherwise.

Amanda: Well, I will say that as a parent of kids who have ADHD, I have often been the parent who was like, you don't have to go do your homework right away. And I know that that's sort of antithetical to like all what a lot of people say. You know, come home from school, do your homework, get it done, then do your other stuff. But my kids weren't ready to. They needed that time to sort of breathe or let their brains breathe or whatever they needed to do. We can have the homework station all put together, but it doesn't mean we have to put the kid at the homework station the minute they walk in the door.

Gretchen: Right.

Brendan: Right. And how much of that is coming from your own anxiety?

Gretchen: Just get it done, man. Go to that seat and do it, right?

Amanda: OK, so what's the conversation sound like if I am trying to get my kid in the game, get their head in the game, and not put my anxiety on them? What's that conversation sound like?

Brendan: A lot of that conversation is happening inside of you and doesn't need to be shared with them, right? Like, because you got to work on your own stuff before you can have this conversation. You have to figure out what is it about, in this case, homework, and doing it as soon as I get home, or is having my kid do it as soon as they get home. What is it about that that makes it so important to me? It might be that transitions with your kid are wicked hard and you don't want to have another transition. You don't want to have to battle them to come and do homework at 5:00. So it's easier to avoid that battle because they're kind of still in school academic mode. So you can at least get them into it better.

And that might be because you're doing it wrong in terms of what activities you're having them do before they do homework. Screen time is not a plan before homework, unless you know you can trust your kid to pull out of that screen and go into homework. If there's ever a battle around getting out of screen time, then they need to do something else before they do their homework.

Gretchen: Yeah. That brings me to a related question, Brendan, which is sometimes kids have it together executive function wise, especially when they love something, right? But when they don't like something, all of a sudden I see the skills go away. And I wonder, OK, are they struggling or is it that they're just choosing to not have those skills in that moment because they don't want that for that thing?

Brendan: When we're talking about kids, it is never useful to decide that they're choosing to not do or do anything. Because all that does is vilify the kid and make us, as parents, feel more justified in being meaner to them. Instead, we always want to assume that our kid is doing the best they can. And we always want to assume that they are trying to do well and want to please us. Those are my fundamental assumptions at all times. And have I screwed up? Yes. There was a period of time when my kid was struggling, like a lot of kids right now. Post-COVID, there's a lot of anxiety stuff going on with kids.

My kid is one of them, man. And I was wrapped up in my own anxiety as a result of his anxiety, and I wasn't thinking as clearly. And we started battling. And we had one particular rough battle that my wife got caught in and I sat down on a bed. I can still see it. I can see myself sitting on the bed and going, I'm doing it wrong. Like we should not be battling. This is not the relationship I've had with my kid for the last 13 years. What am I doing wrong?

And I literally went through in my head the slides of the parent groups that I run. And I hit this one slide that is like everyone is doing the best they can. Your kids want to please you. They want to succeed. And if those things don't feel true, it's because there's a skill set that's missing or there's a resource that they don't have that they need. And I was like, he's doing his best, and his best is not up to my standards. And that's because something else is going on. I knew what that something else was. It was the anxiety stuff that's going on. And I was just like, oh, the skill set that he's missing is the anxiety management skills that he needs.

But it wasn't that he couldn't do the stuff that I want him to do. It was that he couldn't manage his anxiety. And the only reason I started banging heads with him was because I was so anxious that I couldn't bring the skills that I usually have to bear to navigate the challenges that he was facing and help him out. So it makes sense. It happened to both of us at the same time, and that's why we were banging heads. And our relationship changed from that day forward.

Amanda: I'm going to push, though, a little bit, because I really I'm super curious about the kids who say to us, like, I'm just not feeling it. Like, is there something below that, you think?

Brendan: What's below when you're not feeling it? Like there's times when we're not feeling it either, right? And there's something below that, too. Sometimes it's I haven't slept well for a week, and I'm just done. I don't have the mental capacity to do this. Sometimes it's I haven't moved my body in like a month and a half and that's affecting my get-up-and-go. Sometimes it's I'm chock-full of anxiety because someone in my house has a chronic illness or I'm afraid of COVID or or my parents are getting divorced or whatever, right?

There's all kinds of reasons why kids might not feel it. And if they say, I'm just not feeling it, there's two really good responses. One is cool, then you don't have to do it. Like figure out when you can. Give me an idea when you might be able to do this, and we'll do it then. The other answer is, I totally hear you that you're not feeling it and I get it. I can tell that you're not feeling it, but unfortunately you still got to do it. How can I help you get this done?

Gretchen: I like that language.

You brought up not wanting to battle your child and none of us want to battle our child. But in thinking about going back to school, we might be getting feelings from last year of oh my gosh, the backpack was so disorganized. Oh my gosh, why didn't you bring home your homework assignments? So how can we start off the year better, but get some of those basic skills under control?

Brendan: So I have some videos on "How to ADHD," Jessica McCabe's YouTube channel, on my Wall of Awful model. That is exactly what we're talking about right now. The idea behind the Wall of Awful is that — I'll do like a two-second thing. Watch the video. It's like 14 minutes of your life. The gist of the Wall of Awful is that, like, we have certain stuff that we do that we fail at or struggle with. And as a result, we get these negative emotions built up around that task. And we have to navigate those negative emotions before we can do the thing.

So if we've battled with our kid about school a lot, as school comes back up, we have a Wall of Awful for navigating school as much as they do. So we get in a fight and argue about stuff. Just put your shoes on, or whatever. And sometimes it's that petty, right? Like we're yelling at our kid to put their shoes on, even though they have 10 minutes before they even have to get on the bus. And it's not about the shoes. It's about all of the battles we've had about school for the last seven years or whatever.

So to get ahead of that, talk to your kids before school starts about how you have conflict when school starts. And ask them, like, what do you notice about this conflict? What do you need for me to help avoid this conflict? Or this is what I need from you to help avoid this conflict. What do you need from me to help give me what I need, right?

Because that's what parenting boils down to. Parenting boils down to what does my kid need from me in order to be better? So whenever I have a conflict with my kid or my kid is struggling, I'm always asking them, like, what do you need from me? And sometimes what they need from me is for me to intentionally give them nothing so that they can figure it out on their own. Sometimes that's what I'm giving, is like independence.

But if that doesn't work, I need to be ready, like a safety net with, like, other stuff, right? Like, oh, you also need me to, like, bust out a timer and remind you that those are useful. Or break this task into smaller, more manageable chunks. Or, as I had to do for one of my kids recently, text the dad of one of their friends that he wanted to hang out with, because he just didn't have it in him to text his friend. And we had that conversation. I was like, cool, then I'll text the dad. Not a big deal.

Amanda: Sometimes my kid doesn't know. My kid's like I don't know what I need from you. So as parents, having those examples of what you can then say: Is it this? Is it this? Is it this? What else would you add to that list?

Brendan: First I would add if the kid says "I don't know," say to them, "You don't need to know. I don't want the answer to this question right now. I can, like, take a few hours, take a day." Because when we put a kid on the spot, anxiety spikes, executive functions shut down. They don't know. But if we give them some thinking time and some grace, then they can come back later and tell us stuff. Or maybe not. Maybe they come back an hour later and they're like, I still have no idea.

Then we start giving them examples — examples that are informed by what we already know about our kid. Do you need me to get some timers? Do you want to sit down with me and I can body-double you while you work on this? I got some knitting to do, or I have to pay the bills. Like we can sit at the kitchen table, you can work on your thing, I can work on my thing. Do you want help breaking this down into small, manageable chunks? I know sometimes you struggle with that a little bit. Would it be useful to maybe call up Sally and have Sally come over or do a Zoom with you and you guys can work on this together? Would that be helpful? Like, and something else that you thought of, because I am running out of ideas? Like, what do you think?

Amanda: So we're all about executive functioning today, which always includes time management. And Brendan, I know you said you had somewhere to be. So I just want to thank you so much for sharing all of these insights and advice with us today.

Gretchen: Yes, thank you so much, Brendan. So much for us to think about.

Brendan: Thank you for having me.

Gretchen: Brendan has lots more to share with families who are working on building their executive function skills. Go to ADHDEssentials.com. That's where you can also find his "ADHD Essentials" podcast.

Amanda: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Gretchen: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Amanda: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Gretchen: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Gretchen: Thanks for listening and for always being in it with us.

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Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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