Strategies for Building EF Skills

By Peg Dawson, Ed.D., NCSP, with Eve Kessler, Esq.


Students with ADHD and other learning challenges often have weak executive function skills • Strengthening these skills will benefit your child at school and beyond • Share the guidelines here with your child’s teacher, and follow up with them at home

For years, Peg Dawson thought of students with ADHD in terms of the diagnostic criteria: having a persistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. When she transitioned from working in public schools to clinical settings, Dr. Dawson realized that inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive didn’t begin to describe the children she was seeing. Instead, her students struggled with executive skills, such as planning, organization, time management, working memory, and procrastination.

While all kids who have weak executive skills do not have ADHD, all kids with ADHD have executive skills challenges.

Dr. Dawson went on to co-author a series of books, guides and academic planners, beginning with Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. Her message to parents is that, although the future may initially look daunting for kids with executive function (EF) challenges, they are “a hopeful population” full of potential. As they grow, their brains mature and, if they learn the strategies she discusses, they have a good chance to be successful in school and beyond.

Improving EF Skills at School

Executive skills are critical for effective learning. Teachers expect kids—especially middle and high schoolers—to have internalized these skills already and to be able to use and build on them. But executive skills don’t come naturally to kids with LD and ADHD; they need to be explicitly taught. Because local, state, national and CORE curricula fail to identify both the necessary skills and who is charged with teaching them, students often have a hard time learning them.

If your child has weak EF skills, here are some school-based strategies to share with your child’s teachers:

  1. Modify the environment. Some kids need smaller classes, less distracting classrooms, or a seat in a quiet spot away from windows, open doors, water fountains, or tempting play options.
  2. Offer direct instruction and an abundance of practice. Teachers cannot teach or practice executive skills enough. They should model, shape and explicitly label the skills that need work, “Okay, class, we’re going to spend the last 5 minutes of each day tidying up our desks. This is important because organization is a necessary skill you’re going to use throughout your life.”
  3. Incentivize practice. Kids may benefit from token systems, daily report cards, positive feedback, physical activity, or singing and dancing breaks. Games, used as a class reward or a fun transition after a test, make practice engaging while weaving executive skills into the mix. The games may differ depending on the skills that need repetition. Card games, board games, and chess help kids with planning, perseverance, flexibility, and working memory; Scrabble requires organization and planning; games using blocks, music or brainteasers encourage task initiation, time management, self-control, and attention.
Improving EF Skills at Home

You can support your child by using strategies similar to those suggested for teachers. For example, remove distractions from study areas, model skills that need practice, and use incentives to motivate your child. Following are some additional ways you can help your children develop their executive skills: 

  1. Assess your own executive strengths and weaknesses. Although there is a genetic component to LD and ADHD, family members rarely share the same profile. Consequently, each child has her own profile of executive skill strengths and weaknesses. Because inconsistent profiles often lead to tension points in family relationships, the better you understand your own executive profile, the better you will be at assessing, comparing, and understanding your child’s strengths and needs and offering the required support.
  2. Meet your child where she is and build from there. EF skills develop slowly across childhood, with each child maturing at her own pace. Because of lagging development, there is frequently a mismatch between what you think your child can do and what her brain is truly ready for. The mismatch is greatest during the middle school years. For example, it doesn’t matter what you think an 11-year-old should be able to do, what matters is what your 11-year-old is doing. Remember that EF skills don’t fully mature until the mid-to-late 20s for neurotypical kids and even later for kids with LD and ADHD.
  3. Establish daily routines. Embed the skill you want your child to learn in an everyday routine, for example cleaning her bedroom. Walk her through the routine over and over until she has internalized it. Create a visual of the routine and say, “Go check your bedroom cleaning list.” Take pictures of what the perfect, clean bedroom will look like and ask, “Does your bedroom look like that?” The fewer words and less nagging required, the better.
  4. Keep things positive. You know your child better than anyone else and are her most important advocate. When referring to her, don’t use—or allow others to use—negative terms, such as lazy, unmotivated, or disruptive.
  5. Keep an open mind and listen to others. Kids often behave differently in school than they do at home. Teachers and school staff may know things about your child that you don’t. 
  6. Allow your child to struggle and learn from her mistakes. Because your child struggles with so many things, you may want to try to make things easier for her. However, the only way kids will develop executive skills is by making their own mistakes and learning from them. 

This article is based on a keynote address at a Smart Kids Conference, LD, ADHD, Executive Skills: What’s the Connection? by Peg Dawson, Ed.D., NCSP. Dawson is a psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders, in Portsmouth, NH, and a member of the Smart Kids Professional Advisory Board. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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