How to teach executive function

Executive function is how our brain figures out what to pay attention to. When we talk about wanting our kids to be able to function as adults, what we are saying, in part, is we want them to have strong executive function.

People with autism have bad executive function. I am one of those people.

After so many coaching calls, I can diagnose someone over the phone just by hearing how terrible they are at executive function. (It’s always someone really smart who can’t do basic stuff in life like job-hunt while they have a job.) Anyone can tell a tendency for the same thing by looking at someone’s hands. See that picture above? The girl raising her hand has extreme hyper mobility in her finger joints, which comes from low tone, which comes from Autism, and it’s a harbinger of poor executive function.

But those are my own pet ways to diagnose poor executive function. Here’s a more official-looking resource for executive function that provides a basic definition and what it looks like to have a deficit.

In school, it looks like forgetting to eat during lunch time. Maybe forgetting to tell your parents there is no school on Tuesday.  Leaving books in your locker instead of taking them home. Leaving homework at home instead of taking it to school.

At home it looks like you do a poor job at figuring out what you should do next at any given time. Then, once you have decided, you are slow to transition.

What’s interesting to me is that poor executive function in a job looks nothing like poor executive function at school, but it looks the same at work as it looks at home.

So, to teach your kid how to function in the world, the best thing to do is look at how the world is functioning. And in general, information workers can use technology as a stand-in for good executive function skills.

If you take the big picture approach, most work is grounded in a database so companies can keep track of information. This means a lot of executive function skills are sidestepped by technology. For example, companies use online CRM solutions to ensure that salespeople don’t lose track of what they are doing. The software tells you what is most important, what’s up next, and even what process to follow.

The people who manage our kids when they grow up use software to make the process easier. This means that all the times someone with poor executive function might slip through the cracks, the software is there to catch them. Asure Software, for example.

Once I started thinking this way I realized that what kids need in order to compensate for executive function deficits is not found in typical pen-and-paper solutions, or handmade charts. Kids should be learning early-on to compensate for executive function shortcomings by using technology. Because that’s how they’ll do it in the real world.

I’m hesitant to give you a list of apps to start on with your kid. Because first of all, Minecraft teaches kids to use a computer to solve executive function problems. (Do you know where you stored your treasure? Click the menu to find out. Did you forget where you built your house? Then you have to start over.) And many video games accidentally teach executive function skills because they teach independence, decision making, and they require speed.

But here’s an app I like. It’s a simple to-do list but it’s goal is to make you check your to do list regularly. I like that. But you don’t need to use —there are a thousand personal productivity apps.  And maybe the most important skill kids need to develop is to find their own apps; if you can identify your problem, you can probably find an app to solve it.

So look at that. If you want to teach your kid to function in the real world, once again, you can do it homeschooling, but you can’t do it from school.

4 replies
  1. Leonard
    Leonard says:

    Don’t teach science. Hypermobility is very common in kids and affects way more girls than boys whereas autism affects way more boys. Also many famous dancers musicians and gymnasts are hypermobile and seriously doubt they’re lacking executive function in high numbers. You seem to read studies and contort them. You’re a very good writer but a shabby interpreter of data. Just wanted to clarify. Also I don’t believe executive function can be taught nor do I believe it doesn’t often improve on its own for many kids as they grow older. Anyone can learn to navigate something familiar but that’s not really a measure of executive function. I think it’s become an overused silly buzz word by people who evaluate kids and people who want an explanation for their faults and also choices.

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      So because it’s statistically unlikely that a hypermobile low-tone girl might have autism, Penelope is automatically “a shappy interpreter of data” who shouldn’t teach science?

      As the mother of an autistic daughter who is currently in a wheelchair due to a hypotonia-related injury, I am trying to figure out how your condescending comment contributes any clarity or understanding of the topic.

      For myself, I’m glad to see someone exploring different methods of teaching executive function.

  2. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Poor executive functioning is also characteristic of ADHD, which is more common than autism, but has a lot of overlap in the visible symptoms. Smart people with decent social skills and bad executive function likely have some degree of ADHD. Although ADHD can lead to bad social skills as well, due to not paying attention to social cues (as opposed to not seeing them at all).

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