Summer Fun to Build Executive Function Skills

blooms-taxonomy-2-150x150Summer’s here and the learning never stops! Sure no one wants to even think about school during July and August. I understand that. But if your son or daughter struggles in school with organization, planning or focusing long enough to get through homework, then you might want to build some of their executive function skills this summer while having some fun. Below are three executive function skills with some activities you can do to strengthen them. Once you start to see your child/teen improving you’ll want to be sure they “transfer” their learning to school and their life by asking questions such as: “How might a stronger memory help in school?” or “What a fun day. Your plan was organized and we had everything we needed. Can you think of any other ways that great planning might be helpful?” Don’t forget to mention whenever you use planning, or working memory strategies so that your son or daughter sees that those skills are used every day.

According to Bloom’s new hierarchy of skills the first step is the ability to remember. Working memory has been defined as being able to hold onto information long enough to use and/or manipulate it. For example, understanding the rules of a new game and being able to play it while keeping track of other players’ moves uses the working memory.

Here are some ideas to increase working memory skills during the summer:

  • Write it down! Use a planner, smartphone app (Google CalendarColor note, EvernoteRemember the MilkHiveminder, etc.), or notepad to keep track of events, vacation, etc. so you don’t overburden your working memory.
  • Practice setting reminders in your phone for fun things because the summer is less structured.
  • Play the “I went to Grandma’s house and I brought my….” game that uses all the letters of the alphabet. Each person must repeat what was said before. I went to Grandma’s house and I brought my apple, blanket, cow, daffodil, etc.
  • Memorize license plates and repeat them backwards
  • Hold a family competition to name the 50 states, presidents or capitals.
  • Play card games or Memory type game
  • Bake cookies and keep two ingredients in your memory before looking again at the recipe.

planner-150x150Planning skills include the ability to organize your thoughts in a logical manner to accomplish a goal. It requires sequencing and figuring out the individual steps needed to get to completion. Students that struggle with story or essay writing, long term projects or even getting all their homework done may have a weak “planning” skill.

Here are some ideas to build “planning” during the summer:

  • As mentioned above, have your child/teen plan out their summer reading and math packet time on a calendar.
  • Plan a day trip and include all necessary details. Walk through it to check that everything important is included. Don’t forget museums, historic places, and parks.
  • Cook like they do on TV. Get out the ingredients and measure them all out first before beginning. Pick a new recipe and plan the shopping list and determine the cost before going.
  • Geocaching – pick where you want to go, what you need to bring with you, etc.
  • Pack for a day at the beach or camp – check before leaving that everything is included. Start with the end in mind.
  • Puzzles and brain teasers are fun. For the young ones “find the differences” activities involve creating a plan of where to look in an organized manner that you’ll need to show them. How will they put together a puzzle that doesn’t have any straight edges?
  • Discuss their video game strategies with them. Have them explain their approach. Better yet, play with them and discuss as you go.
  • Plan a scavenger hunt
  • Build a bird house or race car (Lowe’s sells kits for kids)

Time management starts by developing time awareness. Here are a few suggestions for activities that will get the family going and develop an understanding of time:

  • Time activities like emptying the dishwasher, setting the table, feeding the dog, reading 10 pages, etc. after your child/teen has estimated how long it will take.
  • Create an obstacle course and post the times to beat (give younger kids a few minute cushion).
  • Hold the family “Olympic games” and have everyone compete against themselves over the course of a few weeks.
  • How many baskets/goals can they get in one minute? Jump rope for one minute.
  • Start a monopoly game or “Life” and play for an hour each night until someone wins.

Have some fun and please share your activities on our FaceBook​ page. Check out our upcoming classes here.

Helping or Hurting? The Dilemma of Enabling vs. Empowering

groupphotoWe all want our children to grow up to be responsible, successful members of society. Isn’t that what you want for your child? So we “help” them at every turn so that they can make it to school on time, complete their homework perfectly, and get good grades. But are you really helping or are you hurting them?

Let me explain. If your child or teen has ADHD/ADD then you know that they struggle with routines, focus and remembering what they need to do as well as, doing what they know they need to do. You may feel that if you don’t remind your teen then they would never get out the door in the morning or finish their homework. And you may be right. However, providing them with the information they need before they have had time to consider what comes next does not help them develop the necessary skills to become independent instead it makes them dependent.

Think about these questions:

  1. Are you helping your son or daughter create a routine to get out the door (with everything they need) or are you telling them what to do each day? (Ex. get your shoes on, did you brush your teeth, do you have your homework? And on and on.)
  2. Are you empathizing and really trying to understand what they are feeling or are you just trying to solve their problem by telling them what they “should” do?
  3. Are you checking their homework and making them correct it so that the teacher doesn’t know that they are struggling with it?
  4. Are you reminding them of everything they have to do so that they don’t have to remember on their own?
  5. Are you waking them up in the morning?

If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, please keep reading because although you may think you are helping your children, in reality you are not. When you take away your child’s opportunity to problem solve by either telling them what they should do, or by doing it for them, not only do you handicap them from learning the skills but you are chipping away at their self-esteem and self-confidence and fostering their dependence rather than independence.

For those with ADHD, learning routines and habits can take a bit longer than it does for those without ADHD. So it is important to start building the skills early so that by the time they get to high school, you have done your job and your teen is pretty independent. You want to feel confident that they can make it on their own at college. On the other hand, if you wait until they are a senior to start “letting go” and just drop the support you have been providing all along, they may not have the skills they need to succeed in college.

So, how can you empower them instead?

  1. Work on one thing at a time. Together decide what it will be. Empower your teen to come up with their own solutions just be sure to include how they want you to “support” them in this new process.
  2. Instead of saying you “should”…..try asking questions that lead to your teen figuring out their own solutions. Ex. “What do you think you could do to figure that out?” “How can you prevent that from happening again?”
  3. Learn about Executive Function skills so that you and your teen can better pinpoint which skill is weak. Is it getting started on things (task initiation), remembering (working memory) or finishing things (task completion) etc.? Weaknesses can occur in several executive functions but often there are EFs that are strengths as well. What looks like several areas of weakness could be the same EF showing up in a different context. How can you use the strengths to help compensate for the weaknesses?
  4. Change comes from within but here are three questions to ask that can help. Can the environment be changed to better accommodate for the weakness? Can the task be broken down into more manageable steps so that it is not so overwhelming? Does there need to be a system or a routine created to assist in solving this?
  5. Lastly, consider whether or not you are too close to the situation to really be able to help, or if you are finding it difficult to remain nonjudgmental then it may be time to find an Executive function coach or counselor to work with your teen. An EF coach will work with your teen to identify those weak EFs and together they will develop a plan/strategy to strengthen them and the coach will hold your teen accountable for taking action on that plan and meeting the goals that are set.

Jodi Sleeper-Triplett said this in her book Empowering Youth with ADHD:

…empowerment is about much more than helping the young person with ADHD accomplish goals: It’s about helping the young person identify strengths and resources; practice thinking about how to solve problems and meet goals; build skills; develop a positive self-image; and ultimately, lay a foundation for long-term success in the days, months and years to come. (p35)

And who doesn’t want that for their teen?

Our new summer classes teach the Executive function thinking skills your teen needs to become more independent. Click here for more info.

What is Executive Function?

Thinking skill posterExecutive dysfunction or executive function deficit is defined by Web MD as a “set of mental skills that help you get things done.” It is a simplified definition but when you break a task down into all the components needed to complete it, it is easier to see how having one or more weak areas can stop the progress. Just take a look at the processes and skills that are needed for “thinking” in the graphic to the left. That does not take into account the other skills needed to actually get something done. These executive function skills develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which continues to develop until around age 25. However, these skills seem to be really important during the teen age years, yet are not quite developed enough to be depended upon.

Executive function skills help you:

  • Manage time and be realistic about what you can and cannot do in the time available
  • Regulate your emotions and behaviors to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Determine what you should pay attention to and what you should not
  • Switch focus based on the feedback you receive about the effectiveness of what you are doing
  • Plan and organize in a logical, methodical way to complete tasks and thoughts.
  • Remember what you need to remember at the right time
  • Allows you to make decisions based on your past experiences and avoid repeating your mistakes

In school, executive dysfunction can look like missing homework, forgetting to study for tests, doing poorly, spending hours on homework, or not being able to find things they know they have. One thing executive dysfunction is not, is the attitude of not caring. Most students really do care and cannot understand why they can’t “remember” things. They are frustrated and feel less capable than their peers. Self-esteem suffers and unless they get some help they can spend their school years continuing to do things the same way….and getting the same (lower than they are capable of) grades.

The worst part is that they may continue to think that they are not “smart” and avoid opportunities to stretch themselves for the rest of their lives.

What’s a parent to do? We often try to “show” our children how they “should” do things, or we wonder out loud how they could have done…x, y or z (how could you…what were you thinking…why didn’t you….etc). Although well meaning, these approaches are often met with resistance and your teen may internalize the guilt and judgment that you didn’t realize came across.

It’s time to take you out of the picture. Get students to take a deeper look at what is happening and then coach them to design strategies to work for the way they think. Traditional methods often do not work because the habits are not built into them. Teens are “told” what to do and often do not take the time to think about whether it works for them or not.

The most common executive skills that affect academics are:

  • planning/organizing thoughts, ideas and processes – difficulty writing essays in a thoughtful, organized manner, or completing projects, developing a study plan
  • working memory – holding onto all the information needed
  • cognitive flexibility- ability to shift thinking and or behavior when stuck
  • focus – determine what to focus on and what to ignore
  • controlling emotions – keeping them in check even when frustration builds
  • taking action – doing what you know needs to be done
  • getting started – taking the first step is often the toughest
  • task completion

If your teen struggles with any of these skills, it may be time to try coaching. Coaches believe that individuals have all the skills and knowledge they need to solve their own challenges by guiding them to think deeper and more creatively about them through guided questions. Teens often don’t take the time or feel they have the power to make changes that will work for the way they think. Isn’t it time they took back that power? Our group coaching classes help students become proactive, design strategies and test them, and learn about how they think with a small group of like-minded peers.

Home from College – Deja-Vu All Over Again

summer-beach-graphicHas your son or daughter arrived home from college for the summer and quickly slipped right back into their “old” high school ways? Down deep you know they have matured because they made it through on their own this past year. They know they have grown too, but something about returning home can sometimes set them back. To avoid a “deja-vu” experience, try these five tips to helping your student continue on the path to maturity. Don’t worry it doesn’t mean they don’t need you just as much; it’s just in a different way.
1. You haven’t really seen their new maturity in action and your old habits can often get in the way. Don’t assume they are the same person they were when they left last fall and try to encourage that new maturity to come out.
2. Set some structure to the summer….it doesn’t have to be boot camp structure but giving them some responsibilities is a good thing. Just remember to get their input before “assigning” jobs. Review and adapt household rules that fit that new maturity.
3. Respect their schedule and their privacy. Treat them as the college student they are and not the high schooler they were.
4. If you want to encourage communication and/or keep those lines open then don’t multitask when you get them alone. Stay off the cellphone and really listen to what they have to say. Just be aware that they may not be into sharing at all.
5. Don’t solve their problems, they just want to be “heard” they don’t need you to solve things for them. After all, they have been on their own for the past ten months and made it through.
The summer will fly by if the drama is kept to a minimum. These are some of the last summers you may spend with your child so focus on the good things and enjoy the ride. Let me know how you’re coping on my Facebook page.

Goal Setting for Teens IV

Follow the road to motivation
Follow the road to motivation

Now that you have separated your goals into actionable steps and put them in your calendar, it is time to add in some reinforcement to help you succeed (please see previous posts). We all know how hard it is to start a new habit and maintain it. Sheer willpower does not work! You have probably heard the saying that it takes 21 days to change a habit. Writing down your action steps are the first step but that does not guarantee that when the time comes you will do it.  I think that by leveraging your environment you can increase your consistency and create a new habit in less time.

By leveraging your environment you can reinforce the habit you want to establish. The physical aspect of leveraging the environment would be putting things in place that would serve as reminders for the action you want to take. Reminder cards on your bedroom door, signs in the bathroom, or moving furniture around to better support your new habit are all examples of ways to use the environment to help you. You can color code your calendar or create a vision board that shows you and your life with your new habits established.

You can also link a new habit to something you automatically do now. For instance if your morning routine of getting ready for school is the same each day then you could link your new habit to some part of that routine that is already automatic. For example if brushing your teeth is automatic, you could review flashcards for those two minutes. By hooking something new to something already established you increase your odds of doing it.

You can also use your family and friends to help you. By asking for them to call you at a specific time or meet you somewhere only if you have done your action helps you become accountable. Just that little added pressure of having to explain your action to someone makes you more likely to do it.  That is one reason why coaching is so effective with teens. If you’d rather keep track of your progress yourself, then I recommend using a simple chart you can check off or what Darren Hardy calls a rhythm tracker. This will allow you to see how you are doing. Sometimes we give up because we missed one or two times. A rhythm tracker gives you the bigger picture. Save them so you can compare and try to increase your consistency each week.

There is also the use of technology to help you stay on track for working on your goals. Using your smartphone for alarms and reminders from your calendar or devices such as a Time Timer (clock that shows the passage of time in a more visual way) or MotivAider (vibrates like a pager but goes off as frequently as you want) can supply the external reminders you may need to establish that new habit. I know that if you take the time to think about ways you can put reminders out there, you can come up with those that will work for you – and that’s what’s most important.

Don’t try to do it on willpower alone. Put at least two of these accommodations into effect and see the impact they have. I’d love to hear about it. Please use the comment box below.

Goal Setting for Teens III

setgoals1Now that we have determined how to set a SMART goal(please see previous posts) it is time to take it to the next level and actually design a plan or strategy for achieving it. Take a look at your goal, if you have followed the steps in the previous two posts then your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time specific.

Next, determine what needs to be done to attain that goal by breaking it down into actionable steps. I use a big blank piece of paper and just start writing all the things I feel are involved in that goal. As you are brainstorming this part you’ll notice that certain steps seem to go together, write them in the same area of the paper. You’ll end up with a “mind map” or “web” with key steps grouped together. Make sure to break each idea down until it is a specific step. Going back to our example of raising a grade to an 83%, we can see that a step such as, “studying more” is much too general. Break it down until you can get to the specifics involved (it helps to answer who, what, where, when, why and how questions). Is your goal still realistic and attainable given all these steps?

Now before we go further, take a look at what you have written down. Do you see any potential obstacles, roadblocks or challenges that could occur to stop you from achieving your goal? If you can foresee the obstacles before they occur you can design strategies to overcome them before they happen. Knowing your plan if “x” should occur will prevent you from giving up on your goal because one thing went wrong. I am assuming you have had this goal before but did not achieve it. Einstein is known for his definition of insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  What will make it different this time?

You should take a short break at this point and let your brain process all this information. Often new ideas or strategies will come to you while you are doing something else that is less brain intensive. Come back and reread what you have written, is there anything to add?

The last step for today is to prioritize your steps and actually put them in your calendar. You do use a calendar don’t you? Mark out where and when you will do step a, b and c, etc. I would suggest you double the time you think it is going to take to do the step, until you get a better idea of the actual amount of time you will need for each step. Is it still realistic? What can you do RIGHT NOW to keep the momentum going? DO IT!

Next post will cover ways to leverage your environment and track your progress. Please feel free to post your questions or goals in the comment box below.

Goal Setting for Teens II

In my previous post I mentioned that SMART goal setting for teens can provide a direction, focus and a measurable path for achieving the success they want. Whether it is to make the team, ace a test or make the honor roll a teen can benefit from clarifying what it is they really want rather than just making a general (and often empty) statement. We have already mentioned that a goal must be specific (S). The easiest way to do that is to answer the “wh” questions of who, what, where, when and why. The answer to the “why” question should resonate with your teen and not with someone else’s wishes for them.

A SMART goal is also measurable (M). In the case of improving grades it would be easy to track the progress on a simple chart. If a teen was trying to make the varsity team, they might want to track their practice time, workout time or the amount of weights they are lifting. This works for tracking a new habit as well. Darren Hardy, Publisher of Success magazine uses a rhythm register to track his new habits throughout the week. Having your teen track their progress makes the intangible, tangible. Now they can see the effort they are putting in and judge whether or not it is enough.

The next two letters (A & R) go together. A goal must be attainable (A) and realistic (R). Aiming for the honor roll is wonderful but it may not be realistic if grades are low or tests are few. It is wonderful to aim high but when forming goals they should be out of reach enough that you would need to stretch yourself and not so easy that you could attain it with minimal effort. Keep in mind that the further you have to go to reach your goal (especially academic ones) the longer your time frame needs to be. In our example of raising a grade by 12 points to an 83%, if only one more grade was added it would need to be a 91% or better. That may not be realistic. If instead there were three or four more opportunities to be graded, then the goal would be much more realistic and ultimately more attainable.

So you can see how important it is for a goal to be “time specific” (T), which is the last letter of the SMART acronym. Have you ever noticed that when you had a deadline coming up that your adrenaline kicked in and you were able to focus and get it done? Perhaps you have joked about “working better under pressure?” This is what happens when you set a time frame for accomplishing your goal. The impending deadline creates all kinds of action in the brain and kicks you into overdrive. It provides the motivation you need to get it done. Use it to your advantage.

A great time to set goals is at the beginning of the school year, but each new term brings another opportunity to create, review or revise them. February brings the start of term three in most schools and this is a great opportunity to prove to yourself what you can do. Start today to create two or three SMART goals. The more practice you have at setting and reaching for goals that meet the SMART criteria, the more likely you are to experience success. Celebrate the direction you are going and the changes you are seeing and let go of any guilt or negativity. Share your goals in the comment box below.

Next time we will take the goal setting to the next step of goal attaining.