D is a very bright child. He comprehends most of our science, history, and social studies very quickly and is ready to move on before I am. But, due to executive function issues related to his Autism, he has some trouble in a few surprising areas. In fact, the reason we homeschool him is due to his sensory and executive function issues.
Executive Function is like the conductor if your brain is a train. Executive Function controls where you go, how you get there and what time. Executive Function controls working memory, multitasking and organizing. When he is having trouble in these areas, he can get frustrated and angry. We have to work through these emotions and keep trying. These are the areas he struggles in the most.
D does not have any trouble at all with mathematical concepts. He learns those rather quickly. The problem comes when he is asked to memorize addition and subtraction facts. Memorization is a problem for him. That’s because the executive function area of the brain controls working memory. In order to memorize something, you have to hold on to it in working memory long enough to send it to permanent storage memory. D cannot do that. It slips away too quickly. So, when doing a page of addition and subtraction, each problem is new to him. Since he cannot hold on to the addition facts long enough, he must start over with each consecutive problem, and if he has a lot of them he gets frustrated. Unfortunately, math curriculums do not take executive function issues into account. Most of them expect him to memorize math facts in a short amount of time. D can memorize, but it takes him much, much longer. At the end of 2nd grade, we still use an abacus much of the time in math.
D is an advanced reader. He is a voracious reader. He reads all the time. Still, this is an area also where executive function affects us. D taught himself to read at the age of 5. But now, in 2nd grade, when a lot of children are moving on to advanced chapter books, D still struggles with books that have no pictures. That’s again because of the working memory and multitasking issues of executive function. Without pictures to remind him of where he is in the story, he must fully rely on his working memory, which is faulty, at best. He must multitask by reading each word and still holding on to the memory of what is currently happening in the story, plus what has already happened. I am also convinced he thinks in pictures, so he has to translate the words into pictures in order to understand it. Since I am beginning to get a handle of his struggles, I have started to act out the books we are reading. If the book has an associated movie, we watch it. If not, after each chapter we perform a short, dramatic skit. The jury is still out, but I am hopeful that this will help cement the events of the story in his mind.
In our homeschool, we do a weekly STEM project. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It looks like building, creating and putting things together. We have built robots, put LEGOs together and solved brain teasers. Once again, executive function issues can interfere with his learning. Solving problems is a job done by the executive function area of the brain. Solving problems also requires multitasking. If the STEM challenge is too difficult, it can cause frustration and anger, but STEM is very helpful to help him learn how to problem solve. As both his mom and his teacher, I have to stretch him a little most days. Not to the point of frustration and anger, but enough so that he can learn some coping skills for the weaker areas that he struggles with.
Some of the ways I’ve been trying to increase his working memory is going to the grocery store, where I challenge him to remember 2 items from our list. Narration during reading, where we go back over the chapter and highlight the big events of the book. We use a schedule, both to help him remember what we need to do that day and as a strategy against time wasters. I’ve implemented a Morning Meeting, where we can discuss our day and go over the schedule. That way he knows what we need to accomplish and whether there are any ‘away from home’ type tasks, like appointments or errands.
What about you? Do you have a child with executive function problems? Do you have any strategies that have worked for you? I’d love to hear them!