Friday, May 22, 2015

Executive Functions II - Plan-Organize-Prioritize.

The ability to plan, organize, and prioritize is a rather circuitous skill. It is difficult to prioritize or plan if your material is not organized, but the very process of organizing takes prioritizing and planning. A good example of this is watching a small child trying to clean his room.

As with other executive functions, personality and environment affect development of these skills. One might assume methodical parents live in a tidy environment with a genetically predisposed organized child. The reality is many a compulsively neat parent is blessed with a sloppy child. The other reality is that the average young student looses homework, forgets that the school project is due tomorrow (the one assigned two months ago), prioritizes poorly, and at times has a messy desk.  Executive functions  must be learned and nurtured.

These skills usually show major growth between the ages of two to six, but do not peak until age 25. Parents can help a child develop these skills by helping a child learn to use:

A calendar.   Learning the days of the week, the months of the year, and the date is an integral part of school. Crossing off days to a marked event not only creates anticipation but encourages patience. Let the child write on the calendar, or put a smiley face for end of school, birthdays, etc. By the completion of 1st grade a child should be able to use a calendar. By 4th a child should be able to write important dates on a calendar and remember to check it for planning.

Since a calendar is a representation of an abstract idea, some children may have a difficult time understanding and using it. Get your child her own calendar, encourage her to to mark off every day and go over names of days and months. Ask how many months in a year, days in a week, what was yesterday, and what day is tomorrow?

Checklists.  Who doesn't know the joy of crossing of items on a to do list? Children don't.  Creating a checklist is a way to get organized. Using a checklist is a great way to break down an overwhelming activity for a child. For the young child, pictures and symbols can substitute for words. A child might use a checklist for getting ready for school or bed, starting homework, or getting ready for a sports activity.  It is fun to create the list with your child so he can see how it is done and so you don't forget an activity. For a young child or a child with an LD (learning difference) the task should be broken down into very small steps. You can shorten a list by combining a few steps once a child understands the process.

Schedules: A child who is able to use  a calendar and a checklist is ready for a written schedule. I suggest including a schedule in a school binder, and one for home. A daily schedule helps a child be prepared. Many children aren't looking at the time involved, per se, but at what activity comes before or after. Schedules may include pictures or a clock face if needed.

Routines and appropriate work areas:  It is easier to become organized if there really is a place for everything. Whether in a room or a school binder - less is best. Children who have problems with lost items, messy notebooks, and forgotten materials do better in a neat environment.  

When teaching a routine remember a child must know how to do something.  Don't just tell -- show. Break activities into smaller steps. Telling a child to organize her binder when she isn't sure where things go, or the overall intent of organizing, is asking for important items to be thrown out just to get that clean look. Some children are collectors, which means all sorts of things end up in pockets and notebooks. It is the job of parents and teachers to make it easy for a a child to have an organized way to store material with easy access. For a young child check with her teacher to see how a notebook is expected to be organized for that year. Oh, and experienced teachers do have routines for turning in homework, and organizing materials and binders.

Don't yell about organization - just be consistent and give your child time to follow through. The time to clean a notebook is on a weekend, not as he is leaving for school in the morning. Tell a child where something belongs and let her put it in its place. It is NOT a parent's job to clean out a child's notebook. but the young child (or the extremely disorganized older child) does need a parent next to her telling her what to do and watching her do it. Notebook organization is a good place for a CHECKLIST.

Who's on First?
A child learns to prioritize with the help of teachers and parents. 
Discuss with your child how he can decide what to study first. Tell him why he should work on his project a little bit each night rather than just the night before it is due. Explain that it is important to decide exactly what he needs for a project before he starts building it. Demonstrate how checklists and schedules help in prioritizing and planning.

Complications:  Some people are neater than others. If your child can find what is needed for school then the fact that the folder isn't as neat as you might like it may just be a personality difference. Too neat can also be a problem if it gets into the OCD(Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) arena. Organizational skills should help a child become less anxious, not more.

A poor working memory makes organization difficult. Children with Learning Differences also may have difficulty with organization and planning. A child constantly getting sidetracked, forgetting instructions, or finding it impossible to organize materials and academic work may need extra help learning and using executive functions. This does not mean that for that child getting organized is a useless endeavor. It will just take more time, patience, and organization aids to help her develop these skills. While children seem to want to rush through life, they shouldn't be rushed. Remember the child with poor skills is often in the most need of being organized.

Although academics require executive functions, there are non-academic activities that help develop these skills. Think of activities that teach classification, observation, listening, memory, organization, planning, patience, and following directions. Some card and computer games require memory for  matching. Mazes, and word searches require planning and observation. Guessing games such as What's in the Bag require classification, listening, and organizing thoughts. The card game Set is a good example of a classification game. Board  games such as Battleship or Sorry also develop executive skills. Think about the skills a game requires when you select one to play with your child.

Organized sports teach following rules and paying attention. Marshal arts and yoga teach self-discipline. Learning to play a musical instrument is another way to help a child develop his executive functions.  

Some children appear to have no strategy when playing a game. You might calmly suggest or show a way to play the game more effectively. Some children won't take your suggestions when given but later will try them out. Remember, executive functions are not fully developed until age 25.

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