Executive Function Development During Distance Learning

Approximately a year before COVID necessitated virtual learning, I began offering online appointments for the families with whom I work. There was a learning curve. But over time my clients — largely boys ages 11-16 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) — mastered making online appointments and using our time productively. And I became even more astute at knowing when those guys were distracted or their minds were wandering somewhere else.

Some of the lessons I learned may be helpful and useful as you embark on more distance learning, but let me stress that none of these strategies will be productive if you start acting as their executive functioning by constant “hovering” or prompting.

ADHD Executive Function in the Wild

When your child is in school, they are constantly using their executive function skills. They are putting effort into maintaining their attention on work, focusing on teachers, and using self-regulation skills to keep their body calm. They do all of this, in part, because they want their classmates to have what I call “neutral thoughts” about them, meaning their classmates are aware of their presence but not really thinking about them (and vice versa) because they’re doing what’s expected for the context of the situation. They are “reading the field,” meaning they are using situational awareness to help them direct their behavior based on what’s happening at that moment in time. They want to succeed and they use these skills, among others, to navigate successfully through each school day to that end.

Do kids with ADHD use their executive function skills optimally most of the time? Of course not. If they did, they probably would not be diagnosed with ADHD.

When your child with ADHD is in school, they use these executive function skills independently for the most part. A teacher may prompt them or give them a non-verbal cue if they are struggling, but as they get older, social expectations increase as do executive functioning demands in school.

[Click to Read: Your Child’s 7 Executive Functions — and How to Boost Them]

Picture your child moving through their classes during a typical (pre-COVID) school day. Now imagine what would happen if you were standing in the back of the classroom, prompting them whenever you felt they were off task, not paying attention, or getting distracted. Would your presence distract them, make them self-conscious, and/or possibly make them less likely to participate? Would you want your parent standing in the back of your classroom monitoring you all day?

From an executive function standpoint, would your child be less likely to use their self-directed talk (what I call “brain coach”) to manage these various executive function skills if they knew that you were in the back of the room to act as their surrogate executive functioning? Would they become more complacent if they knew that they didn’t have to try as hard to utilize their executive function skills because you’re ready and willing to step in? Most likely, yes.

ADHD Executive Function in the Big Picture

When ADHD is in play, it is extremely likely for parents to act as their child’s executive functioning. Unfortunately, this inhibits the development of kids’ (already lagging) executive function skills. “Prompt-dependence” happens when kids are (unnecessarily) given direct instructions to do something like “pay attention,” “Stop wasting time,” or “get back to work.” When kids with ADHD are constantly prompted by adults, they are not learning how to use their self-directed talk to figure out what they should be doing. Prompt-dependence leads to over-dependence on adults. This further inhibits the development of a child’s executive function skills.

You may feel it is your responsibility to constantly keep your child on task and focused during distance learning. You may feel compelled to prompt them throughout the day, but this is actually a step in the wrong direction. How useful and helpful are direct prompts at a time (during school) when your child is not accustomed to you acting as their executive functioning? I think it may cause your child’s executive function skills to regress.

[Download This Free Guide To Distance Learning Strategies for Children with ADHD]

Your gut reaction might be to say, “My child needs me to be there during virtual learning.” I would remind you that they managed to get by in school without you sitting in the back of their classroom. You need to think ahead to the future. Let’s say hypothetically that virtual learning stretches into early 2021 and you’ve spent the better part of 2020 constantly hovering and prompting your child during their school day. What do you anticipate will happen when they return to school in person? Do you think their executive function skills will magically return to a pre-COVID state, after you’ve been their surrogate pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls executive functioning) for so long?

Your child will be fine academically. Their executive function skills will not be fine if their development is stymied by hovering and micro-managing. I have heard many parents say, “I’m not going to allow my child to do poorly in school because of virtual learning.” I understand that impulse, but what about the big picture of life after social distancing? How will they ever build up these critical EF skills? To parents of high school students, I say, “Getting grades that will get into in to college doesn’t mean much if you lack the independence and executive function skills to stay there.”

Cultivating independence in kids with ADHD requires parents to learn how to scaffold a “gradual release of responsibility.” Right now, that means helping your child move toward utilizing their own executive functioning at home, so they’ll be more prepared for the transition back to in-class learning.

Use these strategies to help your child continue to build executive function skills during this less-than-optimal learning time.

1. Get your child’s teacher(s) on board.

Explain to your child’s teacher(s) that you are a willing and eager member of the support team, however you also don’t want to unintentionally hinder your child’s ability to transition back to school eventually. Tell the school if your child will be using any of the sensory input strategies below, and offer to turn off the camera to minimize distractions if your child is up and walking around during virtual learning. For many kids with ADHD, movement promotes focus during virtual learning and this is a great self-regulation strategy that may help your child for a lifetime. The school should support easy, effective accommodations like this.

2. Build their environment using sensory strategies.

When you are standing in the room supervising them, this is distracting for your child. Yes, this even counts for the youngest students (Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade). A better way to keep your child focused and listening is to provide opportunities for sensory input. This can mean using a textured foot pad, looping a large rubber band around their chair legs, sitting on a core strengthening pillow, or buying a weighted blanket. I prefer sensory inputs that do not require the use of hands so that typing or writing can continue uninterrupted. At the same time, many kids find that doodling helps them to focus and they can even listen better when doodling. When I do online sessions with kids, I explain to them that I want them to be as comfortable as possible and if they need to walk around as we’re talking it’s fine.

3. Prioritize fresh air and physical activity.

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. In more progressive schools (and many European countries), students have longer and more frequent recess time than we see in most schools in the United States. Getting outside into fresh air and engaging in physical activity (even if it’s just stretching) can be tremendously helpful during virtual learning. You know your child’s activity level. If your child is a gamer, I suggest “trading” physical activity for screen time to incentivize the activity. Get outdoors and go for a walk even on cold days; make it a habit that does not slip.

4. Offer simple, immediate rewards after your child’s most challenging subjects.

Writing assignments demand a lot of executive function skills, and many student with ADHD find math or quiet reading difficult to get through. Immediately after (or as soon as possible) after your child finishes their most challenging subject(s), offer them a simple, immediate reward like a snack or a single, five-minute YouTube video, etc. By doing this you are helping to build your child’s resiliency to persevere through non-preferred tasks.

5. Dole out purposeful (not empty) praise to build episodic memory.

I use the term “purposeful praise” to describe praise that is based in facts and focuses on effort. Empty praise comprise sayings like “You’re so smart!” or giving reassurance when kids make self-defeating comments. (Example: Kid says, “I’m stupid. I can’t do it.” The parent responds with, “No you’re not.”)

Here’s what purposeful praise sounds like:

“I know how hard it is to sit for this long during virtual school and I see how hard you’re using your brain coach to make that happen. I really appreciate that you’re working so hard.”

“I really appreciate that you cooperated with me today when I asked if I could help you with your paper. Do you realize how much time you saved by not arguing with me when I was trying to help you? That really means a lot to me that you would do that.”

Developing confidence does not come from empty praise but from recognizing one’s accomplishments. This is of particular importance for parents of kids with ADHD, who have difficulty with episodic memory. Episodic memory refers to the type of memory used to recall past experiences and the emotions associated with those experiences. This is what allows us to learn from past experiences and use information from past experiences as needed. If you’ve ever wondered why your child may not seem to “learn from his mistakes” or “can’t remember how to clean his room the same way he did a few weeks ago,” this is why. You need to help bridge the gap between your child’s past successes as challenges in the present or near future.

Here’s what that bridging language might sound like:

“Do you remember how hard you worked to get through online school and then get your homework done by 4? Do you remember feeling good about having that extra free time before dinner? You have already proven that you can do that, so I’m hoping you’ll decide to do it again this school year.”

“I know that you feel really bored in English class and last school year you did an amazing job getting through it. What do you remember helped you get through it last year?”

During distance and hybrid learning, I hope you will take this unconventional advice to help your kids continue to move forward in their executive function skill development, even if the idea of not constantly supervising them is challenging for you. You will be doing your child a tremendous service by facilitating a much smoother transition back to “real school.” — and real life, too.

Executive Function Development: Next Steps

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the facilitator of the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel.

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Updated on September 2, 2020

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