Executive Function: Two Generations
I see a lot of third graders. That’s because third grade is usually the time when children start having to do homework. Most kids adjust to the new responsibility, but those with issues relating to executive function (the ability to organize, schedule, and plan) often find themselves falling behind. Usually there’s trouble with parents and teachers because of lost assignments, incomplete worksheets, missing books. There’s the disorganization—frustrating and upsetting for adults and children alike — which means frantic searches, missed buses, work redone, or lost clothes replaced. Parents who would never dream of getting angry with a child with a broken arm who couldn’t write an assignment are often exasperated when it comes to problems with executive function, even though these issues have a brain-based, physical basis.
There’s a lot that can be done to help children with executive function difficulties. But most of those things require that parents be super-organized to help create structure for the child. That was a problem when it came to Thom Gardner, a cheerful eight-year-old with shaggy blond hair whose life was an endless succession of missed school buses, incomplete assignments, and lost hats, books, homework, and lunchboxes. Sometimes this issue results in a loss of self-esteem, but fortunately Thom never seemed to blame himself. It was as if his difficulties were normal, a fact of life, like the weather.
I soon realized why this was so. His mom, a single parent, was at least as disorganized as he was. Alicia Gardner missed appointments or came late. She promised to bring Thom’s school records, then forgot them. By the next appointment she had lost them. She couldn’t create structure for Thom because her life was one long scramble of lost keys, missed meals, meetings forgotten, tasks undone.
“I think we’d have more of a chance to eat breakfast together,” she confided, “if it weren’t that I’ve got so much unopened mail on the kitchen table. In the dining room, it’s laundry that I’ve got to fold. And I never get to it. We just pull what we need out of the pile when we’re getting dressed.” The one bright spot was that Alicia, a computer engineer, often worked from home, and was reliably there for Thom.
I thought about this bright little boy, cheerfully accepting chaos as a way of life, and decided that there was no way to help him without involving his mom. Clearly we had to work with her first. RNBC doesn’t train executive function coaches for adults, but we have them available. The coach we chose looked at different areas of Alicia’s life and made a list: laundry, shopping, meals, cleaning, working from home, meetings and appointments, physical exercise. One part of the problem was that Alicia didn’t budget her time. Another was that as a single working mother, she had little time to budget. As a computer expert, Alicia took readily to her coach’s suggestion of ordering groceries online and having them delivered. The executive function coach also helped her compile a list of simple meals. Together they found a cleaning service and a gym. Then they worked on creating a schedule of tasks, menus, meetings, and events. They built in aids to memory, like phone alarms and color ‑coded files. Once Alicia and her coach had created a schedule that Alicia could stick to, life became far less chaotic and stressful. It took four months for Alicia to get organized, and I honestly think she was only able to make herself do it because she understood how vital her participation was in insuring her child’s success and happiness.
It was not an overnight transformation, but the results were real. Instead of perpetually falling behind, Alicia now was finished with work and household tasks in time to oversee Thom’s homework and have everything organized for the following morning. She told me that she even had a checklist that she and Thom went over before bedtime.
“Did you lay out clothes for the next day?”
“Are all your assignments complete and in the homework folder?”
“Is the homework folder in your backpack?”
“Is there any extra item you need for tomorrow, like a permission slip, craft materials, library book—?”
“I need to bring 24 cupcakes.”
“ Wait. What? You’re kidding me, right? You tell me this at—“
“It’s okay, mom, I really am kidding you. No cupcakes. You can relax.”
Telling me this later, the two of them laughed. Everything wasn’t perfect. The day before, Alicia had left her raincoat hanging on the coatrack of an Italian restaurant. Thom was headed to soccer practice after our meeting and hadn’t remembered his shin guards. There was probably a whole lot of forgetfulness remaining in their future. But they shared the experience, they helped each other, and things were definitely getting better.