Strengthen Executive Function Skills During Distance Learning
Could improvements in these critical skills be one of the silver linings for children attending school remotely? Here are strategies and tools that can help to offset weaknesses related to ADHD and foster independence.
by Carey A. Heller, PsyD
With the continued pandemic, many children have to be responsible for logging into Zoom classes, finding classwork and homework in multiple platforms, such as Canvas and Google Classroom, checking email and portal messages, and using other methods as well to successfully navigate schoolwork. Additionally, in some instances, they have to teach themselves skills and material to a greater degree than if school were in person.
Obviously, all these tasks can make learning more difficult. On the other hand, while many people focus on the negatives of distance learning, I think it is highly possible that children could potentially come out of the pandemic with stronger executive function skills.
Executive functioning refers to mental processes involved in planning, organizing, task initiation, working memory, and other related skills vital to daily life. Therefore, executive function skills are highly influential in learning and retaining information as well as in completing assignments. Furthermore, weaknesses in executive functioning underlie many of the core deficits associated with ADHD.
Whether my theory ends up being accurate or not, as the parent, you can help to further facilitate development of your child’s executive function skills during distance learning. The main concept is pretty simple: give your child tools that they can use by themselves to simplify organization, keep track of assignments, and follow through on completing them (with oversight as a backup when needed). This will enhance your child’s independence (and lighten your own to-do list).
Here are some very general strategies to use for fostering different related aspects of executive function skills.
Keeping track of assignments
- List on paper
- School portal task list (and manually adding any tasks that teachers do not put in)
- Exporting assignments from school portal to an external calendar or homework app program
- Making a daily and weekly plan in written form
Following through on completing assignments
- Set time of day to work on assignments
- Viewing list and checking off items (not relying on memory to complete assignments)
- System to double check to make sure assignments have been completed and submitted
Automating notifications and reminders
- Automated reminders tend to be more reliable than having a parent remind a child sporadically or repeatedly to do something. Kids can use these tools as they grow up.
- Using reminders or alarms from a personal assistant such as Alexa, Google Home, Google Calendar, Tasklist or other items on a computer, phone, or tablet, or other electronic reminders can be very helpful.
For many parents, the thought of trying to help their children be more organized and independent can be daunting, especially when the parents are struggling so much to balance their own jobs, household chores, and other obligations all while helping their kids. When the parent has their own executive function limitations, the parent’s challenges can further complicate things.
However, helping your children to be more independent—even if you must take a few minutes a day to help them implement things—can end up taking things off your plate as they begin doing these things on their own. Plus, your investment now will ensure greater long-term success and life satisfaction in the future for them, with less worry for you.
Carey A. Heller, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist based in Maryland. He specializes in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and executive function issues. Learn more at hellerpsychologygroup.com. The coordinator for the Montgomery County chapter of CHADD, Dr. Heller also serves on the editorial advisory board for Attention magazine.
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