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Executive DysFunction: Helping your Child to Succeed

Written by Jamie Anderson, Parent Contributor | April 17, 2012

Recently my twelve-year-old son, as part of a clinical study, underwent an MRI. I was nervous for him as I know that some people find MRI machines claustrophobic and I worried that he would panic in the middle of the testing. I need not have worried as he sailed through the 2-hour session and stoically pronounced at the end that it was fun and he’d do it again.

The MRI was one part of a research project to study “cognitive flexibility” or his ability to shift between tasks and to manage multi-tasking. He had earlier been diagnosed, among other things, with executive dysfunction.

Sometimes, as a mother of 3 boys and a teenage daughter, I am hard-pressed to distinguish between my son’s diagnosis and the typical sloppy, no-interest-in-the-details approach most adolescent take on life. But what is, hopefully, only a phase in the maturation of my other children, is for my son and others like him, a crippling life-long disability.

Executive function refers to the mental processes associated with initiating, implementing, monitoring, and revising goal-directed activities. Executive function involves sustaining attention and effort, inhibiting impulses, mentally manipulating information, and organizing materials and ideas. These skills develop rapidly in children and adolescents, and are critical for functioning in complex settings such as school as well as performing day-to-day life skills.

I have learned through participating in this clinical study, and in other studies of my son, that there are a number of concrete ways to help him. I’ll share a few of them with you.

  • Prevent overload
    • Provide structure and support new learning
    • Observe for symptoms of overload and ensure downtime
    • Minimize and preview changes in his educational environment
  • Keep work periods brief and provide frequent breaks
  • Allow extended time for assignments and tests
  • Keep oral directions brief or accompany them with a visual reminder, such as a checklist

These are just a few broad-based ideas, and as with most things the “devil is in the details” and in getting your school and teachers on board. But a joint effort between home and school can make a big difference between your child feeling disorganized, inattentive, sloppy, and uncaring to feeling competent, ready, and able to succeed.

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