Many children with reading difficulties like dyslexia also display signs of having trouble with executive function. Executive function, simply put, is a set of skills that relate to working memory, task completion, flexible thinking, and emotional regulation. Executive function skills allow us to plan, organize, and execute a task. Every task from something as simple as putting a sock into a dirty hamper to those that are more complex like cooking a Thanksgiving dinner requires the use of executive function skills. Trouble with executive function skills can make it hard to focus, follow directions (even those that are step by step), and can cause difficulty with emotional regulation. Children who struggle with executive functioning may:
- Have trouble completing tasks, even simple ones
- Often forget information they just heard or read
- Have difficulty following a sequence of steps or multi-step directions
- Have issues transitioning from one task to another
- Get excessively emotional
- Have trouble with time management
- Be unable to keep track of their belongings
One of the main consequences of executive functioning issues, particularly for students with dyslexia, is that it can take longer for them to learn new information, retain, and process or manipulate this information.
While executive functioning issues can be frustrating for many parents, there are ways to help encourage their development. Here are five ways you can help your child learn, develop, and improve their executive functioning skills:
- Teach the skills they are lacking, do not expect them to simply observe and internalize them. For example, if your child struggles with time management, explicitly teach them how to use a planner or set up a color coded schedule to help them block their time throughout the day.
- Make their tasks shorter. Many children with executive functioning issue struggle with task initiation. If they struggle to get started, a lengthy task will seem daunting and will not provide an incentive to start. If you want your child to clean their room, start with something simple like put their dirty laundry in the hamper.
- Make the steps in multi-step tasks explicit. Rather than telling your child something vague like “go clean up your room,” give them clear, short, manageable steps with an end in sight for each one and a measurable goal. For example, you may ask them to:
- Put their dirty laundry in the hamper
- Pick up their stuffed animals
- Make their bed
- Put their books on the bookshelf
- Put their toys in the toy box
Each of these steps is explicit and short. By breaking it down for your child you make it more likely that they will succeed.
- Make their tasks appealing. You can attempt to turn their tasks into games by challenging them to pick up a certain number of toys during a set amount of time, having them draw a chore from the chore jar, or playing music while they work. With homework, giving them a choice can also be very powerful. For example allowing them to choose whether they want to work on reading or math first gives them more ownership and makes them more likely to be able to complete their task.
- Play games to help build executive function skills. Jenga is a great game to help with executive functioning skills because it requires self-monitoring, flexible thinking, and impulse control. It also requires them to control their emotions if they lose (although in some cases this is easier said than done). Games like Distraction and MindTrap can also help with strategic and flexible thinking. For a longer list of games that can help build executive functioning skills, check out the list here.
If your child’s executive functioning deficits are impacting their reading skills, it is important to also get them Structured Literacy tutoring. Children who receive explicit and systematic instruction will have a strong advantage in committing challenging phonetic patterns to long term memory for automatic recall while reading, spelling and writing.
Our reading clinicians at RW&C use explicit strategies to help students with reading difficulties and executive functioning issues. Our program meets the standards set by the International Dyslexia Association and we know that it works. Contact us today for more information and find out how we can help your child succeed.
Smart but Scattered by Ped Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD
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