Quick Tips for Students Who Struggle with Executive Functioning
For kids who struggle with organization and focus in school, this is the time of year when things start to fall apart. Parents know the pattern well. In September, our kids are fresh-faced and their assignment folders organized. By November, we count ourselves lucky if we even find a folder, nevermind that several past-due assignments are shoved inside. In most cases, the underlying issue is poor executive functioning – a set of developmental skills, including organization, planning, motivation, and focus. These skills often lag in students with neuro-differences like ADHD, dyslexia, and autism, but they can also affect students who have no other known learning issues. Executive functioning skills are vital for academic success, yet are not taught in most classrooms. As a result, too many bright kids are struggling to keep up in school.
We’ve heard from a lot of parents recently who are concerned about this, and we have good news: parents can help kids build better executive functioning skills. To help you get started, we’re sharing highlights from some of our favorite books on the topic, with a focus on key tips and takeaways that you can try at home.
Books on Executive Functioning and Related Topics
- Brain Hacks, by Lara Honos-Webb
- This book is designed for adults who want to “work smarter, stay focused and achieve their goals,” and the lessons here are highly transferable to older kids and teens. The author uses humor and clever phrases to make her recommendations memorable. She includes quick “assessments” to help you rate your executive functioning skills—a useful exercise for parents and kids alike, especially when organizational issues affect the whole family
- Key tip for getting things done: The author recommends “eating the frog” – i.e., committing to doing the tough thing of the day as soon as possible. Procrastinating can lead to anxiety that weighs on you throughout the day, causing other, simpler tasks to fall through the cracks.
- The Disorganized Mind: Coaching your ADHD Brain to Take Control of your Time, Tasks and Talents, by Nancy A. Ratey, Ed.M. M.C.C., S.C.A.C
- This book emphasizes that self-awareness and self-understanding are key. When a student with ADHD learns how their brain works, they can better separate their current behavior from their identity. Behavior is easier to change than identity; making this distinction can help students become more open to working on solutions.
- Key tip for problem-solving: Phrase questions so they focus on solutions—not blame. Students who struggle with executive functioning and ADHD often carry a lot of unnecessary shame, and questions as simple as, “Why didn’t you get your homework done?” can imply judgment that parents and teachers don’t intend. Instead, focus on questions that start with “what,” “when,” and “how” (e.g., “What got in the way of your homework?”, “What can you do to prevent this next time?”, and “How will you know if you’re getting off track?”).
- Key tip for focus: Students can carry a notebook or keep a computer/phone file to track ideas that pop up during conversations, class, etc. By immediately parking those thoughts in their notebook/file, they may find themselves able to return more quickly to the conversation at hand.
- Driven to Distraction, Edward M. Hallowell, M.D, and John J. Ratey, M.D.
- This book is a great reference for anyone who wants to better understand ADHD, what it looks like in kids and adults, its diagnosis and treatment, and how it affects daily and family life. While it does not include quite as many practical tips as the first two books, we highly recommend it to any parent or educator who wants to better understand their struggling child or student. After all, understanding and empathizing with struggling students is the first step to helping them. The authors of this book emphasize that positive human relationships are essential, calling them “the other Vitamin C” (Vitamin Connect) for struggling students.
- Key tip for getting organized: Sit down with your child or teen and work together on a list of specific problem areas, such as their backpack, their bedroom, the dining room table, or any other areas where disorganization and clutter are getting in the way. This helps to limit and define the issue. It’s tempting to just say, “You need to be more organized,” But this is a vague request, and it is daunting to fix everything at once. Once you have a list, you can decide together which area to tackle first, coming up with specific solutions for each piece in turn.
Each of these books has a lot to offer, and there are many more like them. The sheer number of books on the topic should reassure concerned parents and struggling kids that they are not alone. If you’re looking for more support, we offer one-on-one executive function coaching and would be happy to discuss your child’s specific needs. While November is indeed the time when “things start to fall apart” at school, it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right skills and support, your child or teen can hit a manageable stride and reach their potential in school.