Thank you to our Therapy Shoppe® guest author, Dr. Joan James! Dr. James has taught at the K-16 levels for over 40 years in a variety of settings including general education and special education (those with learning disabilities, mentally impairments, emotional disturbances, autism, etc.) in inner-city, rural, Native American reservation, university laboratory, and dual-immersion schools. She has a strong learner-centered teaching philosophy, writes educational articles, and presents at education conferences on the benefits of engaging, memorable, and motivating experiential (hands-on, minds-on) learning. She and her husband raised three daughters and are enjoying their five grandchildren.
10-year-old Katie loves to learn, has a heart for animals, and a strong desire to have friends and make good behavior choices. Despite this, she struggles with learning tasks, social relationships, and has behavior challenges. In school she is easily distracted and has a great deal of difficulty initiating a learning task, let alone completing it. Once she does manage to immerse herself in an activity, it's almost painful for her to stop and switch gears to a completely different activity. For instance, it's hard for her to stop working on an art project that took her awhile to get started on and then transition to math. Katie is also easily frustrated, and this frustration often intensifies to angry, uncontrolled and rageful outbursts. When in this state, Katie often acts impulsively by yelling, cussing, hitting/kicking others, and throwing things. Seemingly insignificant things prompt these strong emotions and impulsive behaviors . . .
Katie has executive function disorder: an unofficial neurological disorder of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex that creates a pattern of impulsivity, inattention, and disorganization that often limits a child’s ability to self-regulate.
What are executive function and self-regulation skills?
Executive function and self-regulation are mental skills that help a child function effectively academically, socially, and emotionally. These skills enable a person to:
- prioritize and organize tasks and manage time as they set goals, start on a task, and work on a task to completion
- focus their attention while filtering distractions and switch their focus to a new activity as necessary
- exhibit self-control by resisting impulsive responses/actions (avoiding inappropriate talk or action), and manage their emotions related to frustration, anger, sadness, fear, etc.
These skills are crucial for effective learning and development. They affect a child’s ability to independently make healthy choices, exhibit positive behaviors, and maintain good relationships (Center on the Developing Child, n.d.; WebMD, n.d.).
The Center on the Developing Child (n.d.) contends that children are not born with executive function and self-regulation skills but are born with the potential to develop them. Conversely, WebMD (n.d.) suggests that some children are born with weak executive function. They go on to explain that children with ADHD, depression, or learning disabilities often have trouble with these skills. In fact, Dr. Russell Barkley, a noted author and authority on ADHD, reported that 89-98 percent of children with ADHD have deficits in executive skills (Zeigler, 2018). Most children that are consistently exposed to positive, supportive, and trusting environments and relationships successfully develop these skills. However, prolonged exposure to toxic stress from situations involving abuse, neglect, or violence, can delay or even seriously impair the development of these executive function and self-regulation skills resulting in damaging effects on learning, behavior, and emotional health (Center on the Developing Child, n.d.).
Signs that a child may have weak executive function or self-regulatory skills include difficulty in:
- managing their emotions (intense displays of frustration, anger, sadness, fear)
- controlling their impulses (speaking or acting without thinking)
- planning, initiating, managing time, and staying on task to complete an activity/project
- maintaining attention and focus while ignoring potential distractions
- transitioning from one activity to another
How Can Children be Helped to Develop Executive Function and Self-Regulatory Skills
Parents and teachers can implement growth-promoting environments to help children develop their executive functioning and self-regulation skills (Center on the Developing Child, n.d.; WebMD, n.d.). Some helpful strategies that give children opportunities to practice these skills so they can eventually perform them independently include:
- Establishing routines and providing visual aids to assist children in remembering the steps of an activity/project. For example, display a daily schedule accompanied by pictures.
- Breaking tasks down into smaller components and accomplishing tasks step-by-step. For example, when teaching children how to research a topic, model and practice each aspect together: a) close line-by-line reading, b) highlighting/underlining important points, c) taking concise notes in own words, d) organizing notes under sub-category headings, e) compiling each category of notes into a paragraph, etc.
- Using tools like Time Timers or the Time Tracker Visual Timer and Clock where students can see at a glance how much time they have left to accomplish a task
- Modeling positive social behavior, and establishing reliable and supportive relationships. For example, involve children in creative play centers such as housekeeping, office, carpentry centers where they get practice interacting with others.
- Emphasizing a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. For example, teach children to say, “When I’m frustrated, I persevere” rather than “When I’m frustrated, I give up;” or “I can learn anything I put my mind to” rather than “I’m either good at it or I’m not.” (Dweck, 2006).
- Actively teaching children how to cope with stress. For example, teach children to identify their emotions through an emotion thermometer ranging from calm to frustrated to angry. Find calming strategies that work for each particular child (there is no one-size-fits-all approach). Some strategies might include reading a book, deep breathing, listening to music, drawing, yoga stretches, talking to a pet like a dog, cat, or parakeet (Responsive Classroom, 2013). Coloring and providing deep pressure input with weighted sensory tools or compression specialties can be other helpful strategies.
- Engaging in vigorous exercise. These children often need to move. Plan an actively-engaging curriculum, participate in active sports like soccer, go on hikes/walks, and provide planned movement breaks/activities in the classroom, sending students on errands at school that includes some deep pressure input, etc.
- Providing opportunities for children to direct their own activities with decreasing adult supervision.
- Proactively resolving issues. Get involved students together. Give each an uninterrupted time to tell their perspective of the situation. Encourage them to tell the truth and own their part in the problem by reassuring them that they are not in trouble; that the goal is to resolve the problem. Once the problem is identified, ask them to come up with solutions to the problem. End the session with each involved student doing Quantum Learning’s (n.d.) 4-part apology: a) Acknowledge . . . “I know I . . .”, b) Apologize . . . “I’m sorry I . . .”, c) Make it Right . . . “What can I do to make it right?”, d) Recommit . . . “In the future, I will . . .”. Most students with executive function and self-regulation issues will need a parent or teacher to facilitate these problem-solving discussions repeatedly as they develop their skills. The above-described process leads to long-lasting change. Generally, detention and suspension without such discussions are not helpful.
There are increasing numbers of children who struggle with executive function and self-regulatory skills, yet many teachers and parents are unaware of this serious unofficial neurological disorder. It is essential that both parents and teachers become aware of the warning signs of these struggles and implement strategies that help children develop the executive function skills that are essential for effective academic, social, and emotional development.
– Dr. Joan James, June 2019
- Center on the Developing Child. (no date). Executive function and self-regulation. Harvard University. Retrieved March 28, 2019 from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
- Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Publishing.
- Quantum Learning (n.d.) A workshop provided for teachers on effective teaching strategies. Retrieved on March 29, 2019 from http://www.quantumlearning.com/
- Responsive Classroom. (2013, January). Teaching self-calming skills. Retrieved from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/teaching-self-calming-skills/
- WebMD. (no date). What is executive function? Retrieved on March 29, 2019 from
- Zeigler Dendy, Chris A. “ADHD Executive Function And School Success.” ADD Resource Center, 5 Sept. 2018, www.addrc.org/executive-function-and-school-success/.,
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