What you can do to help your child with executive functioning challenges become an independent learner

I was compelled to write this article after a middle school teacher friend shared with me an experience she recently had during one of her student’s IEP meetings. The parents brought a well-respected advocate to the meeting who added an extremely long list of accommodations and SDIs (specially designed instructions) to the students IEP that my friend anticipated that 75% of her time in the classroom would be spent attending to this student’s accommodations at the expense of her other students.  What resonated with me the most was something, in particular, she said- “All these accommodations are enabling his dependence on adults.  They’re hindering his ability to learn how to be an independent learner”.
There is a common misconception among parents (as well as advocates) that “more is better” when it comes to accommodations in school.  In my experience the more extensive a student’s accommodations or support a student has throughout their time in high school the more likely they will have difficulty transitioning out of high school.  This does not mean that students should not have specific accommodations, rather, accommodations should be thoughtful and implemented with the intention of helping the student develop strategies so they can eventually do without the accommodation.
When a student’s accommodations allow them to completely rely on adults for support, they lose the opportunity to develop their executive functioning thus a student who already has executive functioning challenges is denied the opportunity to improve them.  This occurs both in public schools and private schools, including schools for students with learning differences.
Many parents are also under the assumption that their child is receiving executive functioning support in school when in reality what they are receiving is what I call “prompt-dependent scaffolding” meaning they are constantly prompted by adults to do things, have little to no expectations of accountability in their role as a student and are not being taught strategies that will empower them to become independent learners.
A common question I’m asked is why schools do not teach executive functioning?   The answer is complicated as it is a multi-systemic problem.  Some of the reasons include: a lack of money allocated to provide teachers with the training they would need, lack of understanding as to why many accommodations and SDIs inhibit the develop of executive functioning, a lack of data around post-high school outcomes for students with ADHD (and to a lesser extent Asperger’s and ASD), and most significant-a lack of understanding of what constitutes executive function skills.
What you can do to help your child with executive functioning challenges become an independent learner:

  1. Ask yourself-Are my child’s accommodations in school helping him/her develop independence or are they enabling their dependence on adults?

If the answer is the latter then it’s time to gather your child’s support team to discuss how collectively you can help him/her move from prompt-dependence towards independence.  This is easier said than done.  The reality is that there few people trained in teaching executive functioning, however, there are a lot of great strategies posted online on sites like Pinterest. 

  1. Evaluate the dynamic between you and your child.  Are you teaching skills to help foster independence or are you acting as your child’s executive functioning by constantly prompting them and doing things for them they should be doing on their own? 

I think any parent would agree that it is our job as parents to teach our children critical life skills they will need to be employable, independent adults.   If you are not teaching these skills because your child is resistant to learning them, gets bored easily or complains then it’s time to reevaluate your expectations of your child and what you provide for him or her.  If your child refuses to cooperate when you try to teach him important skills I would encourage you to replace his smartphone with a flip phone until he understands that to have things he wants he needs to be cooperative and flexible with you.  Very often I see well-meaning parents who do not place expectations on their children yet provide them with luxuries such as smartphones, the latest video game console or unlimited access to the internet.  
A basic tenant of ADHD, Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism is difficulty attending to tasks that one finds uninteresting.   If individuals with these profiles do not develop the resiliency to independently complete tasks that are uninteresting to them, their ability to be employed will likely be greatly compromised. 

  1. Does your child’s IEP or 504 plan place any accountability on them or does it only hold the adults supporting them responsible for your child’s success.

I have yet to come across an IEP that includes a line such as “Ryan will be responsible for asking for help when he is struggling with in-class work.”     Our current special education system places all the accountability for a student’s success on the adults surrounding them, students are not held accountable for anything.   While many students strive to become more independent others may need to learn accountability through a collaborative effort between teachers and parents.   Too often I see parents blame teachers for their child’s lack of academic success yet never question if their child is putting forth any effort.
Every child can show improvement within themselves.  Every child can develop a level of independence relative to their ability.
Think about the long-term goals you have for your child.  Do you want them to become an independent learner to the best of their ability or do you want to hold the adults who try to help your child responsible for your child’s success? Do you want your child to improve his/her executive functioning or do you want them to remain prompt-dependent?
Finally, do you want your child to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment for learning how to persevere through difficult tasks and developing age-expected independence or do you want to make sure they feel comfortable at all times by making sure they never fail?  
Ryan Wexelblatt, LSW is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.   Center for ADHD provides executive function treatment, social skills programs for boys, individual Social Thinking® instruction and a Summer Travel Camp.  Learn more at: www.centeradhd.com and www.adhdtravelcamp.com

Learn more about Social Thinking, created by world-renowned expert Michelle Garcia Winner at their website: www.socialthinking.com


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