Executive Function Strategy: Helping your child shift from prompt-dependence towards independence.

Parents of children and adolescents who present with executive function delays associated with ADHD, Asperger’s and higher-verbal spectrum diagnoses often become accustomed to doing things for their child that their child can do on their own. Whether it be picking up a jacket they left on the floor or putting their completed homework in their school bag it is often easier and faster to complete tasks for a child helping then helping them learn how to complete the tasks independently.
When a child or adolescent is constantly directed by parents or teachers to perform tasks they are what is called “prompt-dependent”.  The ramifications of a child being prompt-dependent are often not seen until they graduate from high school and are expected to manage their life independently, without constant prompting.  It may be no surprise that many students who present with ADHD, Asperger’s and higher-verbal ASD are initially unsuccessful in college or post-secondary training because they lack the executive function skills and what I refer to as age-expected independence.
Enabling prompt-dependence by doing tasks for a child or constantly telling them what to do inhibits the development of executive function skills because it denies him/her the opportunity to utilize their non-verbal working memory.  Non-verbal working memory can be succinctly defined as the visual image one has of themselves performing a task in the near future.  Verbal working memory is defined as the ability to perform a task based on having information stored in your brain. An example I use to illustrate this is that before I leave for work I need to picture myself putting my laptop in my work bag and bringing the bag with me. This would be using my non-verbal working memory.  When I place my laptop in the bag before leave for work I have utilized my verbal working memory.
While executive function delays can be a source of frustration for many families, many parents do not realize they can help their child improve their non-verbal working memory and foster age-expected independence. The strategy below and article I recommend are based on the work of Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen of Cognitive Connections in Concord, Massachusetts. I believe the user-friend strategies Sarah and Kristen have developed to help improve executive function skills are revolutionary and I recommend you add yourself to their mailing list by visiting their website.
Here is a strategy to help your child shift away from being prompt-dependent towards independent.  I have used separating laundry as the task here:
·        Step 1: Explain the objective of the task to your child. (We separate laundry so color clothes don’t bleed their colors onto whites)
·        Step 2: Have your child watch you separate the laundry. (They watch you)
·        Step 3: Have them separate the laundry with you. (They help you)
·        Step 4: Have them separate the clothes independently with your supervision. (You watch them and only direct them when necessary) If they cannot do the task do not take over and do it for them! Go back to step 3 if necessary.
·        Step 5: Have them do the task independently (without you being there).
Make it Visual
A great strategy that you can use to support this shift towards independence is to take a sequence of no more than 4-6 pictures of your child actually separating the laundry step by step, keeping in mind that the pictures need to clearly show what the end result should look like. Print out these pictures and glue them in sequential order (a timeline) on a poster board. The poster board then should be placed wherever they separate the laundry so they have a visual tool that allows them to see themselves doing the task in sequential order.
It is important that this is done in a series of pictures that show your child performing the tasks because seeing a picture of oneself doing a task helps to develop non-verbal working memory.  Lists of directions do not work because they’re not visual and do not prompt one to utilize their non-verbal working memory.
Utilizing visual language if a key component of this strategy. I strongly encourage you to read this article written by Linda Murphy and edited by Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen to understand how to effectively utilize visual, declarative language.
What You Can Do:
-Start Now!  The sooner you help your child develop independent skills the more they will have the opportunity to develop their non-verbal working memory.
-Use visual, declarative language consistently to help develop working memory. Read the article to understand how to use this strategy effectively.
-Do not give into your child’s frustration by doing the task for them. if your child complains or becomes frustrated as you help them move towards independence do not take it personally and stay consistent. Shifting from prompt-dependence towards independence will likely cause your child some anxiety and frustration. They will learn to move through this anxiety and frustration and will develop resiliency and confidence as they become more independent.
-Use visual timelines to teach how to do tasks independently. Individuals diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger’s and higher-verbal ASD often retain information most effectively when it is presented in a visual, narrative format. Keep in mind that the “You Tube generation” has grown up learning by watching.
Moving away from prompt-dependence towards independence will be a work in progress over a long period of time.  You may often find yourself and your child frustrated as you help them develop independence. Stay the course and do not give up. Keep in perspective that you are not just teaching your child how to complete tasks independently, you are empowering them to develop the skills they will need to be a productive, independent young adult.
Ryan Wexelblatt is the Director of Center for ADHD in Narberth, Pennsylvania.  Center for ADHD provides social skills programs for boys, therapy, Summer Travel Program  and executive function treatment.  
The center works with children (ages 7 and older), adolescents and young adults who present with ADHD, social anxiety, Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism spectrum diagnoses.  Ryan is one of the only professionals in the Philadelphia area to have received a Social Thinking Clinical Training Level 1 Certificate of Completion.
Social Thinking was created by world-renowned expert Michelle Garcia Winner.  You can learn more about Social Thinking by visiting their website: www.socialthinking.com