Last Spring, children across the country traded in their backpacks, notebooks, and lunchboxes for laptops, a wireless mouse, and headphones.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 93% of households with school-age children reported that a child at home has participated in distance learning during Covid-19. That staggering statistic means that so many students have had to make a sudden and drastic change in their educational environment and method of instruction. The challenges that came with that transition are likely to be even more difficult to work through if your child has executive function issues.
What are Executive Functions?
Executive functions are a set of processes we use to manage ourselves and our resources in order to reach a goal. Preparing a cup of coffee, making your bed, doing the laundry…we use executive function skills all day, every day. They include basically any action that involves some sort of thinking and planning.
Whether the task is something small (like getting dressed), or more complex (a large work project, for example), executive functions are used for anything that involves paying attention, planning, organizing, initiating tasks, and self regulation.
Did you know the average person makes about 35,000 decisions a day? Over 226 decisions are made each day just on food! Needless to say, we use the skills often and they are crucial for living a successful life.
Kids have varying degrees of success using executive function skills.
Why is Remote Learning So Difficult for Children with Executive Function Challenges?
Reason #1: Change in Environment.
At school, children typically have an assigned desk to sit at and complete their work. The bells ring when it’s time to change classes. When completing virtual school, children are in the home environment, which is less structured.
Reason #2: Increased Independence Required.
Children are asked to do much more independent work when e-learning. They have to self-regulate and manage themselves at an even higher level. At school, children have the advantage of being able to look to the other students to take cues when they aren’t sure what they should be doing. Children enrolled in remote learning aren’t able to do this.
Reason #3: More Distractions.
If you work from home, you may know this to be true for yourself. The home environment is filled with a lot of distractions. Whether it’s the sound of siblings doing something fun or even just knowing their favorite video game is in the next room, staying focused on a task at home is hard!
How to Help
Here are 6 strategies that teachers and parents can use to help children with executive function difficulties to be more successful with virtual learning.
1. Define and Visualize the Goal
Start from the end and work backwards. Ask your child to create a mental picture of how things will look when a task is completed. How will they feel? Can they picture holding up a paper with a big “A” on it? Having a conversation with your child about success can help give him or her the boost they need to plan the steps needed to achieve it!
Consider using a social story if your child needs something more concrete to help him or her define what the end goal is. A social story is an individualized short story that depicts a situation your child encounters. Using a social story or even having your child draw a picture makes the end result more concrete and reachable in your child’s mind.
2. Create a Checklist
Your child’s got their mental picture. Now, it’s time to help him or her work backwards and create the steps they’ll need to complete the task. Let’s say their e-learning assignment is to write a paper with 6 paragraphs. Help your child figure out what each paragraph will include and create an outline.
Want to take advantage of your child being home more and give him or her some more responsibilities around the house? A checklist works great for that too! If the goal is to clean their room, take a picture of what your child’s room looks like when it’s clean. Show them the picture as they compare it to their room now. That’ll help your child create the checklist of steps needed to clean their room. For example, starting with making the bed, picking the toys up off of the floor, and so on!
3. Embrace the Struggle
Motivation is key! Have an honest conversation with your child about embracing the struggle. Recognize that you understand completing school tasks aren’t always going to be fun. But remind your child of the “why”, and the success that he or she visualized before.
Creating smaller goals along the way can act as benchmarks (for example, completing 1 paragraph of a 6 paragraph writing assignment) to keep your child motivated and on track. And don’t forget, if you keep a positive attitude your child is likely to take note and be influenced by that!
4. Teach Time Management
As adults, we use our phones, watches, apps, calendars, to manage our time. Kids don’t have these things to help them.
One great tip? Have your child use an analog clock. This allows him or her to visually see the passage of time, which can otherwise be an abstract concept. Break down a task to determine how long it will take. Mark it on a calendar or your child’s planner!
5. Identify and Limit Distractions
Help your child identify the distractions at home. Have a conversation with your child about how he or she can handle them while completing schoolwork. Maybe your child needs to put his or her phone in a safe until the school day is over, or move their workspace from the dining room table (which is close to the kitchen – and the snacks!) to a desk in their own room.
6. Organize the Environment
That leads us to our final tip: organize the environment. Setting up a physical environment that is organized, decluttered, and allows for limited distractions can prepare your child for a successful school day at home.
If you notice your child is having trouble with executive function skills that are affecting his or her virtual learning, consider seeking assistance. TherapyWorks is a company that provides remote speech, physical, and occupational therapy services. A licensed therapist can complete an evaluation with your child, if recommended, provide therapy, to improve his or her executive function skills to make e-learning easier.