Teachers at Crossroads Christian School often find themselves wondering about how students function once they leave their classroom. The teaching profession carries a great weight of responsibility to equip children for life beyond the classroom. Sometimes that means preparing students for college and other times to live as productive adults in society. When students have learning challenges or struggles it can be a process to make sure they are prepared for leaving the safety of the school community behind. At age 20-29, executive function skills are peaking.
Students can be intelligent and stuck.
“The experiences that we have in our environment while growing up have a strong influence on how our executive skills develop.”50
The executive skills seem to be the largest set of skills that develop in people. When these skills are lacking there are significant weaknesses in the skills necessary for successful independent living.
Executive skills are the brain-based skills that are needed to perform essential tasks.51 These skills serve as our command center as we work through our daily lives. Students with poor executive function skills struggle with controlling their emotions. They tend to overreact to trivial injustices and negative feedback. They have a hard time not getting upset if they do not have time to finish a task.
Lack of executive functions can lead to impulsivity issues, they rush through their work, talk out of turn, and are inconsistent with following rules. When it comes to planning, they can have a hard time deciding what to do first, the steps needed to reach the goal. They can easily be overwhelmed by what they feel is a large task. Organization is an issue for students who have not developed executive functions. Keeping track of important information is difficult. These are the students that are constantly misplacing or losing items.
Along with the poor planning and organizing skills comes the issue of initiating tasks, they have a hard time knowing where to start. They can seem lazy or procrastinating, they are often overwhelmed and find it easier to do nothing. These students are very rigid in their thinking, they have a hard time being flexible. They take things very literally and find it hard to see other points of view or change directions.
The working memory is a struggle for students with executive functioning issues. They will struggle with tasks that require multiple steps, directions, and taking notes. They can hear what the teacher says and not be able to understand or repeat it back right away.
There are strategies that teachers and parents can teach to their child or student to help them improve their executive function skills. Using visuals is a great help, this can give them a pictorial plan for what they need to accomplish. Finding a clue that works for smooth transitions is helpful to the student, so they know when a change is coming, and they are not surprised. Teachers need to show and tell the student what is required or expected, whether it is work or behavior. Routines are essential for this student. This will help them to stay organized and on task. Procedures are close to routines, doing to same thing the same way every time. Reducing the clutter of the classroom, bedroom, or office area will help keep the student from being overwhelmed. Time management can be a problem, keeping a timer or breaking large tasks into smaller chunks will help this student.
The challenge comes when social, emotional, intellectual, and organizational skills are disrupted. Living without executive functioning skills can be difficult, it can affect careers, family, and life in general just getting things done. Life is full of distractions; technological advances have impacted this to a greater degree. Whether it is too much screen time or lack of physical exercise, our lifestyles have not brought improvement to our executive function skills.
Teachers who recognize the need for teaching strategies to help students function even when they have executive function challenges, will help far beyond the classroom. It does not matter if the strategies include low-tech like a paper planner or high tech like an app to help stay organized,52 every tool that is given to the student will help them become successful adults.
Here are some games to help improve Executive Functions and Social Skills:
Blurt: self-control, meta cognition
Scrabble: planning, organization
Pictionary: flexibility, time management
Distraction: working memory, attention
5 Second Rule: time management, task initiation
Freeze: self-control, attention
Jenga: self-control, planning, flexibility
Brainteasers: perseverance, flexibility
Chess: planning, flexibility, working memory, decision making
Sudoku: perseverance, working memory
Team Pictionary: teamwork
Charades: social cues
Guess Who? conversations
Candy Land: taking turns
50 Richard Guare, PhD, Colin Guare, MS, and Peg Dawson EdD, Smart but Scattered and Stalled, (New York: Gilford Press, 2019) n.p.
51 Guare, Guare, and Dawson. Smart but Scattered and Stalled. n.p. 52 “Adults with Executive Function Disorder,”, Aug. 31, 2021. https://www.Theottolbox.com.