It’s a frustration all too familiar for some parents. After hours at the kitchen table with your little one crunching numbers, erasing mistakes and overcoming the emotions that come with a challenging assignment, they still don’t get credit for their math homework. Somehow, it got lost in the chaos of their backpack and when it came time to turn it in, it just wasn’t there. Later, the cycle repeats, but maybe this time it’s a spelling quiz, a writing exercise or a history worksheet.
Getting them to complete the homework is tough enough, but seeing them gain the independence to put it away in their bag and turn it in on time is another obstacle altogether. If this sounds like a common and seemingly endless occurrence in your household, your child may be struggling with their executive functions, a specific set of abilities developed over time that allow them to complete everyday tasks.
“Your executive functions are everything you need to be a good student — ability to plan, manage your time, study effectively, focus,” says Katherine Firestone, founder of the Fireborn Institute.
Firestone opened Fireborn Institute in 2015 after teaching, working as an executive functions coach and then getting an MBA to learn how to successfully manage a nonprofit organization. Today, the institution’s mission is “to provide parents with practical strategies they can use to help their children thrive in school,” she says.
Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as attention control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility. High order executive functions require simultaneous use of multiple basic executive functions and include reasoning and problem solving.
As a child, Firestone struggled with her own executive function skills in school until she was finally diagnosed with ADHD in 11th grade. Luckily, she had a supportive network of parents, teachers and tutors to lean on. But not every parent knows what to do for a child who experiences such challenges, explains Firestone.
When she worked as an executive functions coach, helping kids improve their daily life skills, she would tell parents it would take about 12 weekly sessions with her before they would begin to see real results in their child’s development. But like any other kind of training, parents could speed up the process by continuing the work at home. The problem was, many parents lacked the skills to do so.
“That’s really where this idea for Fireborn came from,” she says. “Parents want to be helpful. They don’t always know what the best strategy is.”
Essentially, Fireborn provides services to any parent who feels stuck – it’s not just for parents of kids with ADHD or other learning differences. It’s largely a digital company and the institute’s website includes videos and podcasts on everything from tips for helping your child study effectively to helping them succeed emotionally in an academic environment. Firestone also gives lectures at PTA meetings and to other parent groups. One popular discourse among almost all parents – especially those of fourth through sixth graders — includes strategies for getting your kid out the door every morning with their hair brushed, their backpack organized and their lunchbox in hand.
In many cases, a clear conversation with your child can be the first step in your strategy for improving their executive functions, Firestone says.
For example, imagine their closet is littered with disarranged clothes and you ask them to organize the space. Later, when they tell you they’re finished, the closet is still a mess. That’s their way of demonstrating that they didn’t understand the task, Firestone says. The next step is to do the work together — make them an active participant in the process and narrate what you do and why you do it that way. When you’re done, snap a picture so they can reference it the next time you ask them to repeat the task.
The same steps can be applied to other challenges they may have, like managing the papers in their backpack or helping out around the house.
The key to having this kind of age-appropriate conversation about your expectations for your child is acknowledging their capabilities and emphasizing their potential to learn by doing.
But whether their closet looks like it imploded, or their book bag is a dark hole of crumpled homework, be sure of one thing: maintaining a positive relationship with your child is crucial to helping him build the skills he needs to be successful.
“Having a child who struggles with executive functions skills is so frustrating. You take it personally. And that’s where you have to be so careful because it’s not personal,” says Firestone. “Your child is not lazy. Your child is not stupid. His brain is developing. He is doing what children are supposed to do.”
If these clear, expectation-setting conversations seem to have little results for your child, it may be time to turn to a child psychologist who can explain whether your child needs more training on specific skills.
“They want you to see them as smart, capable human beings. If they’re not achieving it, it’s not a reflection on you. They just need your help,” says Firestone.