Raising a child who struggles to stay organized – whether it’s their bedroom, the playroom, or backpack – can be challenging for parents. Do you feel like you are repeating yourself over and over? Does your tone sharpen with each reminder? Are you struggling to remain calm and regulated? Learning how to support a child who struggles with executive function and organizational skills takes education, practice, and willingness to learn new parenting skills.
Why Executive Function Matters
Executive function is the set of processes the brain performs to carry out tasks, organize thoughts, and learn other development skills. Several contributing factors impact the development of executive function skills, such as neurodivergence like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), impacts of prenatal exposure, trauma, and developmental delays. Sometimes, as adoptive, foster, or kinship parents, we will never know what impacted the delays or impairments to our child’s executive function skills.
Think of it like this: packing a backpack on Sunday night for school requires us to forecast and plan. We need to remember what we used last week. Then we need to organize it all for access tomorrow. Some of us can pack the backpack with little thought, and no reminders are needed. Others need help to start and suggestions to complete the job so we don’t leave out crucial things we’ll need the next day. Organizing that process is the work of executive function in our brain.
The backpack might be a simplistic example, but it’s critical to understand that executive function impacts physical and emotional health, relationships, educational progress, and career successes. It’s foundational to learning how to become a healthy, productive adult. Our consistent, loving care can scaffold them to develop that executive functioning.
Start with These “Soft” Skills
1. Believe there is hope!
Your child will feed off your hopeful, unwavering belief that they can succeed. But you need to believe it as well! If you can train yourself to think of their challenges as puzzles to be solved rather than obstacles that they cannot overcome, you will convey that to your child.
A critical piece to holding onto hope is shifting your mindset from “won’t” to “can’t.” Ask yourself what your child needs to feel like they can tackle the mess. It’s not that they won’t clean their room. They can’t figure out how to start the overwhelming task.
2. Structure is your friend.
A child who struggles with executive function needs you to run a consistent, predictable household. Manageable routines across the day are crucial. No matter how old your child is, they benefit from visual schedules, social stories, and checklists to help navigate their days.
3. Be involved.
When raising a child with executive function delays, it’s tempting to step back and take a break while in sessions with support professionals. However, the interventions will be far more effective when you are involved. Be present and frequently connect with your child’s team. Joining in will tell your child you value them and how they learn. Make the learning into a family effort to further surround this child with safety and support. You are the safe place your child needs in the struggle to learn.
4. Tell them what you know.
When you or your child become discouraged or overwhelmed by the challenges of these delays, go back to what you know. Speak out loud the hopeful messaging you both need to hear.
- You are a valued part of our family.
- We know you are trying your best.
- Everyone needs help with something.
- Your brain works differently, and that is okay with us.
- We have tools to help you succeed.
- You can do this, and we are here to help!
5. Find ways to tell them what TO do.
Most kids get tired of hearing “no” and what they can’t or shouldn’t do. The child who struggles to stay organized or has delayed executive functioning is even more at risk for the fatigue of “no” from the adults in their life. Instead, look for ways to tell them what TO do. Even when their behaviors are challenging or annoying, direct them in the positive.
For example, when he is repeatedly thumping his spoon on the table between bites, say, “Johnny, you can put your spoon down on the napkin between bites.”
6. Focus on the positives
It can be a lonely, frustrating experience for a child who recognizes they are struggling. Positive affirmations of their efforts and character traits will buffer them from anxiety and discouragement. Find one thing every day to praise in their choices or behaviors. When you feel tempted to repeat directions or instructions for the 4th time, choose instead to call out one great thing they’ve done so far in the task.
7. Practice self-care.
Raising a child with any delay or significant challenge in skills requires that you handle them with patience, compassion, and grace. Are you offering the same to yourself? Think about how it feels to be well-rested and refreshed. Then schedule time for yourself to get that refueling. Make that date immovable. Another necessary means of investing in yourself is finding excellent learning resources that equip and empower you to tackle the challenges you face. You can best meet your child’s needs when you care for your mind, body, and spirit.
Practical Tips To Support Executive Function Growth
A brain that feels safe is a brain that can learn! Your child can benefit from a variety of activities that are both fun and provide opportunities to learn. These tips can help you build safety, trust, and room for growth in your relationship.
1. Tell all the jokes.
Your child’s brain often takes a bit longer to process, especially when some inferences or interpretations are required to connect information. Dad jokes get a bad rap for being corny. Still, they can also help encourage our kids’ logic and processing skills. In this case, the punnier, the better. (We’re sorry. We had to.)
2. Play games together.
We get it. Family Game Night doesn’t sound appealing when a child struggles with impulsivity and raging. However, start small and simple. Your child can develop the logic, self-control, and emotional regulation needed for you to have fun together eventually. Look for games that build a sense of achievement while also engaging the child’s interest. Find opportunities for quick rewards and play up their successes. Focus on fun, not competition. Board and card games that skew slightly younger than your youngest child (or younger than the child who struggles the most) will keep the focus on fun while learning valuable skills.
3. Work together.
A regularly scheduled family workday can be a great environment to foster your children’s executive function skills. Autumn is an ideal time to put this into practice. Gather your family to plan how to prepare the house and yard for winter. Include everyone in the brainstorming. Then break the tasks down into manageable parts. Assign who will carry out which jobs. Ask for ideas on when to take breaks and what would make it fun. Plan a family reward for a job well done at the end of the day.
4. Teach life skills.
Weekly or daily chore charts are helpful tools to structure the home routine. Figure out what tasks will strengthen each child’s executive function skills now but will also be of value as they grow.
For example, feeding and watering the pets daily can teach planning, initiation, and emotional regulation skills. But it also teaches the value of taking responsibility to care for another being.
Some vital life skills that will also develop executive functioning include:
- Doing laundry
- Making their bed
- Setting out clothes for school
- Picking up their toys daily
- Setting and clearing the table
- Washing dishes or loading/unloading the dishwasher
5. Establish simple household rules.
As we said earlier, kids who struggle with executive functions can get frustrated by how often they hear “no,” “stop it,” or “don’t do that in the house!” We get tired of saying it, too.
Set up basic family rules and frame them in the positive. “No shoes in the house” can become “We leave our shoes in the mudroom.” Kids with ADHD or a history of prenatal exposure will need the rules posted prominently in the house. Visual cues you can point to can also help defuse tensions when you feel a rant or escalating tone coming.
Note: Pair your rules with predictable consequences.
To help a child further develop executive functioning skills, consider how to streamline your enforcement of these rules. Enforcement should occur promptly. Consequences should closely connect to the infractions. The goal is to teach your child that they are responsible for their actions and that actions have consequences, so those close connections are vital.
Supporting Attachment with Your Child Who Has Executive Function Delays
Many of our adoptive, foster, or kinship parenting skills are rooted in building secure attachments with our kids. When our kids know that they can trust us to lead them well, we can teach them how to cope with these challenges and set them on a secure path to thriving. Whether our child’s struggle with executive function started with trauma, neurodivergence, or prenatal exposure, we must pave that path to healing with trust and safety.
What have you tried to strengthen and support your child’s executive function skills? Tell us in the comments!
Image Credits: Andrea Piacquadio; Zen Chung; Kampus Production