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Executive Functioning... Why We Do What We Do


By: Lydia Bisson

Executive… what?

Executive functioning skills are the cognitive skills we use to interpret and respond to life events. Children begin learning these skills the day they are born and continue to develop these skills into adulthood. “EF [executive function] is intimately connected with the processes by which people do purposeful activity” (Cramm H. et al., 2013). Executive function skills can be categorized into seven main areas:

  • Time management

  • Initiation of tasks

  • Prioritization of tasks

  • Mental flexibility

  • Self-regulation

  • Problem solving

  • Working memory

Executive functioning skills cover a wide range of cognitive abilities. Persons with “deficits often experience difficulties with participation in everyday, meaningful activities” (Rocke, K et al., 2008) Developing strong executive functioning skills in your child will prepare him or her to function as independently as possible into adulthood.

How do you know if your child is struggling with executive function skills?

  • frequently turning assignments in late

  • not starting homework unless reminded

  • starting tasks and projects and leaving them unfinished

  • frequently forgetting their coat or backpack

  • difficulty agreeing to changes in plans

  • struggling to collaborate with peers

  • rarely suggesting solutions to problems

  • consistently forgetting scheduled activities

How you can help your child improve their executive functioning skills?

Time management – Accurately estimating time needed to complete tasks and planning ahead to finish tasks on time.

  • When your child wants to start a new project suggest they plan the length of time of

each step before they start. After completing the activity, reflect on whether their projected times were close to how long it actually took to complete the task

  • Use a timer, planner, or phone to help your child pace themselves during an activity.

  • Use the multiply by 2 rule (if your child thinks a task will take 5 minutes have him set aside 10 minutes to complete the task)

  • Play time sensitive games such as Operation, Perfection, or 1 Minute Naming (How many animals can your child name in a minute?)

Initiation – Challenge your child to begin a task or an activity without any verbal or visible assistance

  • Present your child with a new task or activity, then wait and see if they can start the task on their own. Patience is key!

  • If you need to give hints start with the basics such as stating, “It’s Tuesday. We have kickball tonight.” See if your child will start to get their gear together without further directions.

  • Games with turn taking and problem solving provide many opportunities for initiation. Try playing Checkers or Sorry!.

Prioritizing tasks – Encourage your child to complete steps of a task in order.

  • When beginning an activity with a younger child ask them to tell you what they think needs to be done first.

  • Have older children make a schedule on their own, while you do the same. Go through the schedules together and compare. Discuss why did you each choose to place the tasks in that order?

  • Ask your child to break a large task down into steps and then place them in order of importance.

  • Try a fun sequencing activity and create your own scavenger hunt, or play cause and effect games such as Uno Stacko or The Game of LIFE.

Mental Flexibility – Being able to see a situation from another’s point of view, using objects for multiple purposes, and being willing to adjust plans to accommodate others’ suggestions.

  • Suggest changes to your child’s plan and see if they can adjust their plan to accommodate the changes you want to make.

  • Use some basic supplies for unusual purposes examples would be to build a tower from marshmallows and dry spaghetti or use a paper cup to make a boat.

  • Solve brain teasers together or do jigsaw puzzles.

Self-Regulation – Involves impulse control to stay on task and respond appropriately to frustrating situations.

  • Challenge your child to complete their current task before moving on to a new task.

  • Discuss calming strategies with your child that they can use to regulate emotions when they start to become frustrated.

  • Play a game of red light/green light, freeze dance, or Jenga to practice impulse control.

Problem solving – Instead of telling your child the solution to a problem, ask questions that will lead your child to the answer. What would you suggest? is a great starting point!

  • Next time your child can’t find their shoes or notebook. Have them think through when they last used or saw the item. If needed give clues to find the item but try to have them problem solve on their own. (If possible, it’s best to do this the night beforehand not the moment you need to walk out the door!)

  • If you child complains about dinner or points out a problem at school encourage them to suggest a solution to the issue which they have noticed.

  • Play strategy games such as Connect Four and Cranium.

Memory – Help your child develop their memory. Give hints and clues instead of directly telling your child what they have forgotten. Try using, “What did you leave? Or What are you forgetting?”. Then, wait for your child to remember the item on their own.

  • Use lists and timers to remember items and tasks.

  • Use mnemonic devices by creating your own acronyms or rhymes to remember the order of tasks or items needed for a task.

  • Turn memory into a fun task and ask your child to remember 5 things they smelled at school that day or 5 objects they saw out the window this morning.

  • Play board games such as Gobblet, Go Fish, and Memory!

Who can help if your child if you are concerned about their executive functioning skills?

An occupational therapist (OT) can evaluate your child to determine which executive functioning skills are challenging for them. Your therapist will provide opportunities for your child to practice executive functioning skills and will develop individualized solutions to help your child overcome function challenges. After assessing your child, the occupational therapist will provide individualized treatment strategies to improve your child’s ability to independently complete daily routine in preparation for adulthood.

References:

Cramm H., Krupa T., Missiuna, C., Lysaght, R., & Parker K. C. H. (2013) “Broadening the Occupational Therapy Toolkit: an executive function lens for occupational therapy with children and youth.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, 138-137. DOI :10.5014/ajot.2013.008607.

Dimond, A. (2012) “Executive Functions” .Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-147. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4084861/.

Rocke, K., Hays, P., Edwards, D., & Berg, C. (2008). Development of a performance assessment of executive function: The Children’s Kitchen Task Assessment. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 528–537. doi:10.5014/ajot.62.5.528.

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