No surprise, middle years toughest for executive functioning

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

The tween and early teen years are universally acknowledged as challenging. With changing bodies, fluid friend groups, multiple extracurricular activities and higher expectations at school, the middle years can be tough to navigate. Add in challenges with executive functioning skills, and you often find a recipe for difficulties at home and school. Kids with an extreme deficit of executive functioning skills might need outside help for treating executive functioning disorder, and other kids might just need some gentle reminders at home. 

Shawna Seaton-George is a speech language pathologist in private practice who says her work naturally connects with executive functioning skills as language ties in with how kids organize their thoughts and actions. She sees a generational shift in the mastery of executive functioning skills that becomes more pronounced once kids hit the middle school years.

"Part of what we're seeing is that when kids are younger, in the elementary school age, they don't have the same responsibilities that they did 25 years ago. They don't do the same chores around the house and don't go out and play solo in the neighborhood. There's not as much back and forth between school and home, and executive functioning skills become confusing territory for everyone: parents, teachers and kids."

When the skills aren't built into the school day in kindergarten through fifth grade, Seaton-George notes that by the time kids get to middle school, with bigger demands, they might not have the foundational structure in executive functioning to deal with the high demand environment. 

Mary Beth Hausken, parent and long-time Oak Park Education Foundation volunteer, says she sees an increased need for executive functioning skills just as students near the end of elementary school. "By fourth grade, kids are typically able readers, and expectations start escalating at that point. Homework ramps up; tests and projects begin to require planning. By sixth grade, students are expected to know the executive functioning skills already and expected to be able to stay organized. The expectations today are much higher than when we were growing up."

During the middle years, Hausken says that many parents need to be actively involved in helping their kids acquire and sharpen executive functioning skills, which can be a process that takes time. "The secret is, you start off telling your child explicitly what to do and then move them to where they come up with their own solution. Then, move them to the last place of where they do it on their own without a prompt. Over time, your goal is to move the child from a place of dependence to independence."

With her own three children, now grown, Hausken observed that even within the same family, the grasp of executive functioning skills varied widely, and she says that research indicates that ease of mastering executive functioning skills is not tied to intelligence.

All children will occasionally need a nudge in the right direction, and it can be difficult for parents to know when to seek help or try a new approach in helping their teen grasp executive functioning skills. Seaton-George emphasizes that struggling with executive functioning skills is not a deficit; the skills are something that continue to be developed throughout a lifetime. She does say, "If it's having a significant impact on your ability to function, it's probably something that you need to look at."

While each family's approach should be tailored to their unique issues, Hausken identifies a few key areas that are often a source of stress for families of middle school children and offers tips for families struggling with common issues.

Both Seaton-George and Hausken advocate modelling appropriate behavior for your kids. Seaton-George recommends that clients talk out loud about their own experiences. "Modelling our adult strategies and talking about them out loud can help. For example, when you open the fridge and realize you're out of something, you can say, "We're out of these things. Let's make a list. I can go to the store on the way home tomorrow."

Hausken, who jumpstarted the OPEF's Vex Robotics Program, also says that programs like it or other extracurriculars can play a key role for kids struggling with executive functioning skills and says parents should not take away outside activities for children who might be struggling at school. 

"Kids with executive functioning disorder struggle enough. A lot of these kids have talents that may not be used at school. Part of each day, kids should have something that makes them feel successful and happy. Bring balance to a child's day so that part of the day they feel capable and full of happiness."

SIDEBAR: Strategies for dealing with Executive Function Disorder

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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