September 1, 2021

Executive function (EF) is the ability of an individual to pay attention, plan, recall instructions, and handle multiple tasks effectively.

EF also plays a huge part in time management, task initiation, organization, flexibility, self control, and perseverance. By the time a student is in middle school having adequate executive function skills are not just an expectation, they are critical skills to have success in and out of the classroom. 

Many students with learning disabilities and varied learning needs will often have poor or limited executive function skills and can benefit from many types of adaptive and organizational strategies at home and at school. EF skills are malleable, which means they can be taught and improved with practice and repetition. 

It is crucial for an adult to assist setting up and reinforcing these strategies to make them successful, routine, and automatic.

  • Create a color code system for each subject. Use colored tape on the binding of all books, notebooks and workbooks and use a colored marker on the side pages. This allows the child to easily grab subjects when pulling out materials and will help ensure all materials are packed up for homework at the end of the school day. 
  • Follow this color code in their assignment pad and be sure each subject is listed in the same order every day to increase success for copying homework assignments down. Also, use Post-it flags or paper clips to easily find the current day or week in the assignment pad. Teach them to move paperclips or flags when necessary.
  • When using a binder, ensure the dividers have pockets for storage. Use the front and back parts of the binder for immediate needs, such as items to be signed and returned to school. Also, allow them to have an extra folder divider to store items such as drawings and non-academic related papers. 
  • Use a checklist! Create a morning checklist for all items needed for school and an end-of-the-school-day checklist. Kids with executive function weaknesses have to be taught this skill and reinforced every day.
  • Assist your child in organizing and labeling their Google Drive each week. This is another skill that needs to be taught, scaffolded, and reinforced by an adult. Allow them to have a “Fun” Google Drive folder to keep their non-academic and leisure files in one place. 
  • Each week, help your child straighten out their binder, desk, backpack, and locker. Use the system Trash, Treasure, Keep. Trash: thrown away or recycled, Treasure: something they want to hold onto, but not pertinent for academic purposes. Keep: important and should be organized and filed away to its proper home. 
  • Teach your child how to use a monthly calendar to improve time management skills and how to initiate, plan, and execute when working on bigger projects. Calendars are also helpful for weekly task reminders such as the Trash, Treasure, Keep strategy. Encourage children to use a simple line strike once tasks are complete to improve self confidence. 
  • Use a timer at home to assist with task initiation and task completion. Time Timer is a wonderful visual timer, and also is in the form of an app. Setting timers on phones or Alexa type devices also can be very beneficial.
  • Google Drive has a “Tasks” feature that is easy to set up to create recurring daily or single event task reminders.

Ongoing reinforcement of these strategies can help your middle school child become more independent, confident, and feel accomplished. Keep in mind that these skills are malleable and often must be taught to students who have attention difficulties and executive function weaknesses to have academic success in middle school. 

Kimberly Bradley, MS, LOTR, pediatric occupational therapist, owner Kim4Kids

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