How to help your bright but disorganized children to reach their true potential?

A lot of times parents and teachers complain that their children/students, who are otherwise smart and intelligent, are quite haphazard in their daily routines. Verbally they know everything but the moment they get to work, or are in a stressful situation, they have trouble in:

  • Staying focused on a task for a longer duration
  • Recalling and retaining information, (keep forgetting concepts/things)
  • Organising and planning their thoughts, work and everyday activities
  • Time management
  • Getting started on a task, end up procrastinating
  • Thinking before they speak or act
  • Managing emotions especially in a stressful situation
  • Staying motivated (give up easily)

All the above-mentioned actions/behaviours require the individuals to utilize a group of skills called Executive Function Skills.

What are Executive Function Skills?

Center for Developing Child at Harvard University (2014) has likened the front-most part of our brain to an Air Traffic Control System. Such a system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircrafts on multiple runways. Similarly, the brain uses these skills/cognitive processes to filter distractions, plan and prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, control impulses, and function effectively in a stressful situation.

We develop these skills from early childhood to adulthood:

No one is born with these skills, rather we develop them throughout our life, through learning at home, school activities and social encounters. Basic skills like flexibility, emotional control and attention develop earlier, whereas Higher Order Thinking Skills, like planning, organisation and problem solving, develop in adolescence. By 20’s most of us have developed these skills to be used in adult life. Some children, for multiple reasons, might not develop these skills as typically as others do, and might struggle as mentioned above.

They can be helped to develop EF skills through a process called EF Skills Training/coaching.

How to develop, build-up or compensate for EF skills?

Through research, the following broad areas of EF skills have been identified, and individuals can struggle with multiple skills at a point, which can impact their home/school/work life.

  • Response inhibition
  • Planning/prioritization
  • Task initiation
  • Organization and time management
  • Emotional control and flexibility
  • Working memory
  • Sustained attention
  • Goal-directed persistence

Getting to know the areas of struggle and the biggest strengths helps in prioritizing the strategies to be used. A simple questionnaire helps the parent/teacher/therapist to broadly decide where to start. There is usually an overlap as more than one skill is used to finish a task. Building a rapport with the child/teen helps in figuring out their learner profile, likes and dislikes and using that to create strategies and motivate positive behaviour.

Setting/creating goals and plans which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound, give a clear direction to the individual, set them up for success and boost their self-esteem, when achieved.

  • Break their everyday tasks into smaller chunks
  • Make a simple visual checklist to help them prioritize
  • Make a timeline to help them plan and execute accordingly
  • Create a road map with multiple milestones for older teens to help them visualize their ultimate destination and plan accordingly. Keeping them as co-creators ensures ownership and responsibility.

Creating simple environmental modifications helps the children be more efficient and less distracted/disorganised/forgetful.

  • Designate a distraction-free homework space at home
  • At school, seat them with a peer who is organised and can guide them
  • Design a visual checklist for their locker, desk or backpack, to help them remember things to bring home and take to school, like homework, bus card, iPad, diary and swimwear.
  • At school, teachers to go through the day’s schedule and the expectations/rules with them first thing in the morning to help them plan their day accordingly.
  • A calm and safe space for emotional regulation when over-burdened helps in avoiding danger and unnecessary time-outs or office visits.

Getting help can prevent parent and/or teacher emotional and physical burnout. Often a more structured and strategic approach is required to help children figure out and work on their struggles. Especially with teens, parents are already in a power struggle, and managing goals and expectations does not come easily. A professional setting helps in providing them with the strategies that fit them best and ensuring positive outcomes.