My Two Top Strategies to Manage Executive Dysfunction

As you probably already know, treatment for executive dysfunction isn’t a “quick fix.”

It takes time and patience to help our children learn to be more organized, transition from task to task and solve problems independently.

While there are many techniques and options to support your child and your family to minimize overwhelm and stress, I like to focus on two specific strategies that can be used again and again to improve overall functioning at home and school.

The first strategy is to Plan Ahead.

The fact that your child struggles with morning or bedtime routines isn’t a surprise. You can almost predict the ways in which s/he gets stuck. While those “sticky moments” can be improved on, it takes time. In the meantime, I suggest all families plan ahead for time hurdles and morning/homework/bedtime overwhelm and chaos.

Here are some examples of planning ahead:

  • Prepare lunches/snacks the night before. Everyone can help. Even young children and wash an apple and grab a granola bar to toss in a lunch bag.
  • Get backpacks completely packed before bedtime. This means homework is all the right folders, library books, gym clothes, instruments are ALL packed up and ready go to before lights out. This saves a great deal of time and confusion in the morning.
  • Leave enough time to complete routines. Often we are late to leave the house of late to bed because we didn’t give enough time for the transitions to take place. If your child gets distracted or moves slowly, you need to account for this time. Start bedtime 30 or 60 minutes earlier, wake up a few minutes early to start the day. In our home, we drive my son to school rather than have him take the bus, giving us all an extra 40 minutes in the morning to get ready.
  • Develop a realistic schedule. A child with executive dysfunction will not do well when s/he is asked to do 3 activities after school. The transitions are too fast and too intense. I know we are all busy and want to give our kids fun things to do, but a jam packed schedule that your child can’t realistically manage is setting you all up for frustration and burn out. Choose a few afternoons with one after school activity. Give your child an evening with no activities. Let their brain slow down and get centered. Pushing them to constantly be “on the go” leads to meltdowns and resistance.

The second strategy I suggest to every family is to develop structured Routines and Systems.

Routines and Systems help your child (and everyone in the family) know “what’s next” and not have to use a lot of brain power to consider all the options, get distracted and off track.

Here’s an example of a structured routine:

On school mornings the kids

  • Get out of bed.
  • Get dressed (clothes laid out the night before. See Plan Ahead above)
  • Go downstairs.
  • Eat breakfast.
  • Go to the bathroom and brush teeth.
  • Get on shoes and coat.
  • Get backpack (packed the night before).
  • Go out the door to school.

That outline may seem obvious and simplistic, but for many people with executive dysfunction that list is a land mine of transitions and multi-step directions. All those shifts and organizational demands in one hour is a lot for someone who has a hard time transitioning and keeping track of time.

The key to setting a structured routine is to keep it consistent every day. When a child begins to understand that all the tasks have a specific order, s/he can start to plan ahead and transition with fewer interruptions. However, if you alter the routine every few days, your child can’t predict or plan and the whole process gets confused again.

One way to keep kids on track with a routine is to use a check list and let them check off when they have completed a task. This minimizes confusion and is a great reference when they do get off track and need a quick reminder of what to do next.