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Simple Executive Functioning Strategies When The World Is Anything But Simple

By September 14, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Whether your children have returned to school full-time, on a hybrid model or fully virtual learning, we are all juggling. Juggling work demands, family demands, household demands and educational demands in a time of remarkable uncertainty. The start of the school year typically brings the smell of fresh school supplies and our best organizational efforts, but many of us may feel hesitant to use organizing strategies to manage our lives. Why? Because our lives are unpredictable and anything but typical these days. If you’re hesitating to use pen on a calendar, I hear you!

The ability to plan and employ organizational strategies is a key task of our executive functioning system. It’s what allows us to coordinate multiple schedules, dance and sports practices, projects at work, PTO bake sale reminders, and get out the door each day on time. I have been hesitant to adopt routines because I recall vividly how all those plans imploded in March when the world stood still. I hear the buzz about how school will end up fully remote so “put it all down in pencil before it all changes.”  Maybe that will prove true, but in the meantime, let’s consider the ways that we can rally our executive systems to do what they do best: plan, organize and regulate. Some suggestions for how to do this now while the world is unpredictable:

  1. Adopt the Sunday Game Plan. Put information in a family or personal calendar once a week. Spend a few moments on Sunday night catching up on plans for the coming week. Even if we end up transitioning from “hybrid” to “remote” (or all remote), this planning routine can still be adopted. Conclude your Sunday Game Plan by previewing what may be coming the week after in the event of long-term projects. While the content of your game plan may change, the structure can remain consistent.
  2. Keep a consistent schedule for sleep for the family. When we were all in school and work, we had set times to wake up in the morning. We should adopt more consistent bed times at least from Sunday through Thursday nights. Engage kids and teens in a conversation about the plan for sleep. If there are days when children are not waking up to physically attend school, try to keep wake up times no more than an hour off to allow for more consistency in our overall sleep regulation.
  3. As part of your weekly plan, set aside time for exercise. This is particularly important for children who will have reduced physical education activities. Research about the positive impact of exercise on mood, anxiety and attention underscores how important movement is in the day.
  4. Work together with your child to identify a consistent work space. Needing a work space at home is not suddenly and dramatically forced on all of us like it was in the spring. Take the time to arrange a space that is as distraction-free as you can make it. It’s not necessary to run out and buy things as minimal distractions can allow your child to focus on their school work. Keep the supplies nearby in their own bin, basket or box top.
  5. Help your child to create visual schedules or checklists for the day. Include times for virtual school, times for completing assignments and steps to submit the work either electronically or packed for the next day in school. Keep checklists consistent throughout the week when possible.
  6. Plan and schedule breaks. For young kids, try to plan breaks from tasks for every 15-20 minutes. Incorporate movement or stretching when possible to improve focus. For older students, try to plan breaks every 30 minutes of sustained effort. Try to take a full break from screens rather than replacing a tablet/computer screen with a phone or video game.

Children and teens develop their executive functioning skills over time. Keep this in mind as you set up routines and expectations for your whole family as what is expected for a second grader should and will differ from a seventh grader. Again, the content can differ but the structure of using a checklist, planning a break, or working at a desk or table is the same.

Please remember: the pandemic has depleted our executive functioning systems, so it’s important that we are gentle and kind to ourselves. Think about simple and reasonable systems to organize yourself and your family.  And be flexible when we have to go back to the drawing board.

 

Resources:

Positive impact of exercise:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022347612009948

Executive Functioning tips and sample schedules:

https://www.smartbutscatteredkids.com/

 

About the Author: 

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.