Six Signs Your Child Has Difficulty with Executive Function Skills
What Are Executive Function Skills?
Executive skills, or executive function skills are core cognitive skills that we are born with the potential to develop, but which can be affected by nature (genetics) and nurture (trauma, toxins, such as alcohol, drugs, pesticides, etc.) According to Barkley (1977), these skills begin developing in infancy. He provides the following model of development:
Barkley’s Model of Development
- We learn to control our behaviour, e.g. we learn what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to say and do, we learn to control impulses to do things and we learn to manage distractions that might impact on our ability to listen and learn. Barkely says that this begins developing from as young as 5 to 12 months of age. It is the first and most basic step of self-control.
- The development of working memory (the ability to hold information in our short-term memory) begins at the same time, and this allows a child to think about the past as well as the present, which is crucial to being able to control behaviour.
- Next is the development of internal speech, i.e. being able to think things through in your head rather than say them out loud. Children say what they are thinking aloud between the ages of 3 and 5, but from the age of 5, they gradually begin to internalise what they are thinking.
- We learn to self regulate, e.g. to regulate our emotions, our motivations, and we develop the capacity to see things from another person’s perspective. Involved in this, is the development of flexible thinking, problem solving, goal setting, evaluating how we are doing things and working out if we need to change our approach or get some help.
Signs Your Child Has Difficulty with Executive Function Skills
I often see children who have the following difficulties, which are all signs that there may be a problem with executive function skills:
- They find it hard to sustain concentration.
- They might be able to recall information at sentence level, but they struggle when they have to listen to more language, e.g. a story, information on a curriculum topic.
- They find it hard to work out what the key bits of information are. They can’t distinguish between important details and details that are not key to understanding the information. This can be related to having a reduced awareness of organisation and structure of information, such as narratives, information texts, etc.
- They can’t filter out background noises easily in order to listen to a person talking, or then can only do this for a short time.
- They find it hard to reflect on a task and know whether they need help or not.
- They have difficulties thinking flexibly, e.g. thinking of alternatives, comparing and contrasting things to see similarities and differences, thinking of ideas. They might focus on details and find it hard to put information together to see the bigger picture.
These difficulties can have a considerable impact on learning. Children who are struggling with some or all of these can be misinterpreted as being unmotivated, not interested in learning, lazy, etc. These difficulties are invisible, so it is often hard to understand the behaviours that you see. Children with these difficulties often say that they feel exhausted by the end of the day. It must feel like walking in a dense, thick fog, where you can’t see what is around you or where you are going. Being lost is a horrible experience. Children might try to mask these difficulties as they get older, by:
- Copying others
- Giving up and acting as if they don’t care
- Playing the fool.
How To Support The Development of Executive Functioning Skills
1. Supporting Behaviour inhibition
Use Social Stories
Social stories can be an effective tool to raise awareness of behaviour and provide an alternative behaviour. A social story is a tool to reflect a situation back to a child in order to help them think about it, understand it and the impact it has, and to change it. You can read more about social stories by clicking on the links below.
Download the attached example of a social story to help a child manage his behaviour at playtime and understand the impact it has on others. The story contains:
- Descriptive sentences that give information about the situation, e.g. the child gets upset when games do not go the way he wants them to or when he is not sure what is happening.
- Directive sentences that give strategies to the child that they can use to change the situation and to help themselves, e.g. find a grown up and tell them what has happened, they can help the child stop, think and find something else to do.
- Perspective sentences describe everyone’s reaction or response, e.g. I will be happy because the grown up helped me to stop the volcano. My friends will be happy because nobody said negative things and we can carry on playing!
Write the story with the child, and his family if possible. Put some pictures on the story, photos or use communicate in print, or the child can draw them. Read it before difficult situations to help the child think about it. The stories won’t change things over night but they have been found to be effective over time.
Use Comic Strip Conversations
This is an approach by Carol Gray. It is used to help a child understand, and reflect on, their role and the role of others, to understand what everyone was feeling and the impact of what happened. It is also used to help children think of alternative actions that they could have taken. Talk about what happened after an event, as you talk, the child draws pictures of what happens.
When he has described what happened and drawn it, go back to the first picture and ask him what everyone was saying. Write it in speech bubbles. Then go back to the first picture again and this time ask him what he was thinking and what he thinks everyone else was thinking, put this in thought bubbles. Help him think about what people were feeling and why if he finds this hard. Then when you have done this, ask him to think of something else he could have done.
TIP: Do this with everyone involved in an incident to help everyone understand the situation from each other’s perspective.
Use visuals to re-enforce rules, e.g. no hitting, no biting. Some people prefer to use positive visuals, e.g. helping hands, kind hands, etc.
2. Supporting Self-Regulation
Use The Five Point Scale
This is a tool used with children on the spectrum. It is used to raise awareness of when they are starting to get angry and to give them strategies to help avert a meltdown. It is very useful for children who have emotional regulation difficulties, regardless of the underlying reason for this.
This tool can be used one-to-one, but a really effective way to use it is as a whole class tool. Spend one session discussing the scale, which is 0 to 5, with 0 being ‘I am totally relaxed and happy’ and 5 being ‘I have lost the plot!!!’ Get the class to think about what makes them feel really relaxed, and how they feel when they are a 0 on the 5 point scale, e.g. floppy, happy, etc. Ask them to tell their partners and act it out, e.g. act out doing an activity that makes them a 0. Get some of them to act it out to the class. Then, they draw themselves as a 0 and write, or draw, what makes them feel this way (you might get the class to draw it all rather than do any writing, depending on the children and their level).
Below are two examples of 5-point scales children have drawn with me.
Eventually, they will end up with a personal 5-point scale with pictures of themselves at each stage of the scale. You can make a big one for the class. In the next session, talk about ideas for how you could calm your self down when you reach a three and try to avoid getting to 5. Get pairs to think of 2 or 3 ideas, they can tell the class and together you can choose 4 or 5 to use as a whole class strategy. You can put the strategies by the 5-point scale in the classroom.
Model using them, e.g. when you are in the class, say, “I feel great today, I am a 0! What are you?” “I am beginning to feel a bit tense, a bit cross, I am a 3. I don’t want to get really angry, what can I do? Oh yes, I can take a deep breath, clench my fists and count to ten.” You model it and encourage them to use it.
3. Supporting Coping with Noise and Distractions and Taking Responsibility for Learning
Active listening skills: Prompt children to tell an adult when they need to go to a quieter area. For example:
- write a goal with the child and put it on a book or his table so it is visible to remind him to tell an adult it is too noisy.
- Introduce a card system, e.g. he uses a colour card system to show it is too noisy and he needs to be in a quieter space. For example, if he shows an adult a red card, it means he needs to go somewhere quieter.
4. Supporting Monitoring and Organisation
Develop Independent Learning Skills
Go over the steps to success with the child, i.e. the steps he needs to take to complete the work. By doing this, he has the chance to talk about what he has to do before he does it and if he finds planning difficult, this will help. Encourage him to make a visual checklist of what he has to do, e.g. a list of key words or a list of pictures to represent each step he has to take. He can tick each step when he has finished it and then show an adult when he has finished all steps and completed the task.
Download the attached example of a Script For Monitoring Intrusive Thoughts When Listening In Class. This script was used with a child who had lots of intrusive thoughts and found it extremely difficult to stay on task and access work. He had no monitoring skills.
Use visuals, e.g. story planners, Sue Palmer writing skeletons (there are many graphic planners and organisers online that you can download and use) to help children plan and structure work. I worked with a school that had a whole school goal to use these in every year group. They chose the visuals they wanted to use and put them on the interactive white board so that children could contribute to the planning and see the structure. They gave out individual visuals so the children could copy the one on the board and use it to help complete the written task. Many children said it really helped them.
Develop Flexible Thinking
Difficulties with flexible thinking can impact on the ability to think of ideas for curriculum oral and written tasks. Some children might need to be told what to write about and gradually you can introduce a choice of two things that they could write about. Some children might be able to cope with a choice of two or more things they could include in a task.
Language Link have some very good activities to help develop flexible thinking skills, e.g. find the odd one out – this involves thinking about items and identifying similarities and differences; what am I? – this involves putting clues together to think about what they are describing (see attached games). These can be played in the classroom at quiet times and played at home. Start off doing them one to one with an adult, but aim to play them in a pair and then in a small group. You can make similar resources using curriculum topics.
Encourage flexible thinking in the classroom and at home by making links between things, e.g. ask questions about every day objects in your daily routine, for example, at breakfast, ask questions like, “Milk is white. Can you think of something else that is white?” if he finds it hard, give him some examples, “I’ve got one! Snow! Can you think of something else?” You can link things by colour, shape, what you do with them, the first sound (“What does milk start with? Can you think of something else that starts with m? / Can you think of something you can eat that starts with m?”)
Think of uses of an object, real ones and silly ones, e.g. “Let’s see if we can think of 4 things you can do with milk! I’ll go first. You can put in your tea. Your go!” (You can put it on your cereal, you can give it to a cat, you can make a milkshake with it, etc.) Use an object to think of silly ways you could use it, e.g. a cup: “You could wear a cup as a hat.” “You could use it to catch things!” “You could use it as a phone!” The class can take it in turns to think of ideas.
Play guessing games, e.g. put something in a bag, it can be a topic word that you working on, an item from the classroom such as a pencil sharpener, a toy – anything. Give the class 3 or 4 clues to help them guess what it is. Give them some thinking time, then they can whisper to their partner what they think it is. Then choose a pair to tell you what they think and see if everyone agrees. When the class are used to this they can make clues for everyone to guess what is in the bag. There is an app called What’s in the bag? so you can play it on ipads, tablets and phones.
Think of alternative endings to stories and alternative actions that people could have taken in books, programmes and films.
Language For Thinking is a good resource to use to develop thinking skills. It contains short stories and three different levels of questions, A, B, C. The book is great but the pictures are not very engaging, so where appropriate, I act the story out with toys once or twice and then ask the questions in the book. This resource allows you to record outcomes so you can continually assess progress.