Strengthening Executive Functioning
Executive functioning skills regulate, control, and manage one’s thoughts and actions. To put it succinctly, executive functioning skills are what manage the brain.
You probably don’t even think about your own executive functioning or that of others. Unless, of course, you are confronted with a situation in which executive functioning is not, in fact, functioning. Most of us intuitively understand the importance of executive functioning and have a sense of what it is as well as a concern when we don’t “see” it in others. Certain times of fast growth, such as the tween/teen years can affect a child’s executive functioning, especially as the teen brain/body is doing some “Brain Pruning.”
But for some people, executive functioning is more naturally difficult or possibly impaired. These diagnoses can include ADHD, ADD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Processing Disorders, Dementia, and Traumatic Brain Injuries.
Three Main Categories of Executive Functioning Skills
- The ability to pay attention and to organize
- The ability to plan and prioritize; being organized during tasks school or work and the ability to set and meet goals
- Task initiation- taking action to get things done (motivation)
- Keeping key information in mind while completing a task
Cognitive Flexibility (Flexible Thinking)
- Understanding different points of view
- Being able to adjust behavior to an unexpected change in the environment or schedule
- Regulating one’s own emotions, including controlling and appropriately channeling one’s feelings
- Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you are doing) and self-awareness (how is one doing in the moment).
- Controlling urges to “do”, thinking before acting or responding, exhibiting deferred gratification as well as perseverance.
Obviously, executive functioning skills are important – they allow us to interface with the world appropriately, build, and keep significant relationships and hold jobs.
How Do Executive Functioning Disorders Manifest?
People with executive functioning issues may exhibit one or more of the following:
- Impulse or emotional control
- The ability to begin, organize, plan and follow through on task completion
- The inability to listen or pay attention
- The inability to manage one’s time
- The inability to multi-task or juggle multiple tasks, even if they are sequential
- Short term memory issues, including an inability to remember what they’ve just heard
- Difficulty following a sequence of steps
- Difficulty changing from one task to another
- Socially inappropriate behavior such as angry or aggressive behavior, statements about self-harm or destruction of property
If you suspect you or someone in your family has issues with executive functioning, all is not lost! You can accommodate or learn coping skills.
Teaching Coping Skills
Tips and tools to ramp up those executive functioning skills include:
- Visual schedules
- Positive reinforcement
- Organizational techniques
- Working memory exercises
- Item lists
- Self-emotional recognition techniques
- Flexible seating
- Slowly introducing differences in schedules to provide flexible thinking
- Extra transitional times
- Frequent breaks
- Timers or alarms during tasks
- Explicit instruction
- Organized homework or assignment binder
- Parent/student contract agreement
- Clearly defined academic and social expectations
- Logic games, puzzles, and coursework
Executive Functioning is the management of the brain. For kids with executive functioning disorders, it is important to fortify them with resources, materials, and processes that will help them with those struggles throughout life. ~Lisa Nehring
Resources and Support
If you need to be better equipped in this area, you will want to join us for our SPED Equipping Membership! We focus on providing support, encouragement and tools for special needs families all week long. We host weekly Equipping seminars with discussions, a Book Club, and Coffee and Chat! You may also want to find out about our current special needs discounts, check out a listing of resources here and read our blog post, Executive Functioning and Why it Matters in Your Homeschool.
Special Needs Resource Listing
Just in case you didn’t know about the many resources available through True North Homeschool Academy that accommodate learners with special needs and equip and support parents of students with special needs, we thought we’d list them here!
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Navigating Holiday Challenges
Less is more during the holidays- especially for children with learning difficulties, social difficulties, and/or emotional difficulties. Holidays are a wonderful, exciting time of year, filled with fun activities, family and friends. However, it can also be a challenging time for these children and their families. With some creativity and patience, these holiday times can be navigated with less frustration and more joy, when families say “less is more.”
Keep The Academics
Every year homeschooling parents question how long their holiday breaks should be and how much they should focus on academics. I say…why not continue academics (and clocking time for those that need a specified number of hours and/or days), BUT find creative ways to keep the learning going – while still enjoying the holiday. “Less is more…” can apply to academics during the Christmas break!
Here are some “tried-and-true” tips and tools that will keep your homeschooler focused and interested during the busy (and distracting) Christmas season!
Key Subjects – a Little Goes A Long Way
One big concern during the holiday break is that your child might lose skills they just learned – especially math skills. November and December are great times to review. Use short, focused activities. Print out some free worksheets, or use those extras that you didn’t complete yet, and keep their skills going. Even just doing 3-4 questions a day can help them maintain those newly learned skills. Pick the key subjects that your child needs the most practice in, and focus on those. You could also do shortened versions of their regular assignments on the days you have holiday activities.
Unit studies on holiday topics are a great way to incorporate the skills your child needs to keep up with while having some holiday fun! Learn about traditions and Christmas around the world. Study animals from around the world. Keep the fun going with a field trip to the zoo (weather permitting). Incorporate those holiday activities and family traditions: Christmas card writing, holiday crafts, and baking cookies are all activities that can be integrated into your homeschool day. Have fun and be creative- the sky is the limit on what can be included as school work!
Around Thanksgiving, I always pull my mountain of holiday books out and put them in the living room for my boys to enjoy. This is a great time to visit your local library where you will find tons of cute picture books along with classics like A Christmas Carol. After you read the book, watch a version of the movie too. We love The Muppet Christmas Carol at our house!
Games can be a great family activity – and they reinforce skills. RightStart Math has a games pack that reinforces skills from identifying numbers through fractions and decimals. Board games can teach other skills such as cooperation. Have your kids add up the scores and reinforce their math skills. Scrabble (or Scrabble Jr.) can reinforce spelling and vocabulary.
Documentaries, Educational Shows and Apps
From animal documentaries to the history of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus), there are documentaries that can interest and reinforce any topic you want to study. Pop some corn or enjoy those snacks you have been cooking up in the kitchen – so much can be learned from educational videos! Educational apps are another way to reinforce skills. Apps are perfect for travel – use them as you roadschool on the way to visit relatives and friends.
Baking gives hands-on opportunities to practice and learn new skills in reading, math, cooperation, following directions, science, and much more! It is also a fun way to build memories and start traditions.
Looking to incorporate more writing for the holidays? Start a family newsletter. Have everyone submit articles about their favorite memory or what they are doing for the year, and share the news with close friends and family. The holiday letter has become a tradition for many families to send out each year. This year, everyone gets to voice their part!
Crafts and Handmade Gifts
Make some handmade crafts and gifts to give to friends and family. Many skills are learned and worked on by making hand-made treasures. As an additional bonus, you save money on gifts! When you have a curriculum or schedule that must be maintained, change it up and make it fun using holiday paper to create your checklists. Make a bingo card for them to check off the work they have completed for the day or the week. When your child gets “Bingo!” take a break or have a treat!
Special Needs and Social Opportunities
Don’t forget that “less is more…” can apply to events during the holiday break! The holidays are filled with opportunities to see friends, family and acquaintances (and sometimes strangers) that we don’t see very often. Often this happens at large gatherings. For some people, these opportunities are cherished and loved. However, some of our children have a difficult time and become overwhelmed. Here are some ways to plan that will make it easier.
Give a Purpose
One difficulty can be that our children don’t know what they are supposed to do or say at these large gatherings. Give them a job, or help them know what to say (“I want you to ask three people about ________” or “Give three people compliments about _________”). Being “in charge” of a task (such as handing out gifts as guests are coming in) can help alleviate some of the anxiety and stress of being in a large group of people.
Look For Smaller Opportunities
Sometimes we are offered opportunities for smaller gatherings. Sometimes I make my own smaller gatherings for us to enjoy rather than attending the large gatherings others are planning. These are more meaningful to my boys, and tend to go over better.
Activities Over Food
Many times, food can become difficult to navigate, especially when allergies are involved. Look for opportunities that stress activities over food to avoid difficulties with food when this is a challenge.
Along the lines of looking for smaller opportunities, sometimes a simple playdate can take the place of larger activities. Families sometimes have more time off during the holidays, so plan ahead and schedule some simple playdates to enjoy!
Anyone else having an especially cold fall? I know we almost had snow, and that only usually happens once every thirty years…and generally in January or February. Extreme weather causes activities to be canceled or postponed so take this into consideration when planning each year to avoid big disappointments. Winter weather can be a major factor to consider when planning out your holiday schedule and activities.
Opportunities to Volunteer And Give Back
The holidays are filled with teachable moments. Scheduling time to volunteer and give back to our communities teaches kindness and love. Take goodies to the fire station or to other community workers. Donate clothes and toys – or even donate your old towels to the animal shelter. Look for opportunities to show kids how to help and care for others. Older children can read to their siblings or show kindness by taking a Christmas card to a therapist or friend. It doesn’t have to be something big to be meaningful.
I saw the Kindness Calendar idea recently and thought it was a marvelous idea. Even if you don’t follow the idea exactly, creating your own kindness calendar of things your children can do each day to show love and kindness to others can be a great way to show holiday spirit.
Holidays are busy, loud, bright, and filled with friends, family, and even strangers wishing us well! This can be a blessing to many people who love the hustle and bustle of the holidays. However, some of our kids aren’t ready for such happenings. When your child is one that does not enjoy this busy time of year, it’s ok to downsize your holiday traditions, and consider smaller, more meaningful traditions (at least in the short term).
Beware The Temptation to Over Plan – It’s OK to Say NO
When our children get easily overwhelmed, it’s ok to say “no” to family or friends when they invite us to do activities that our children will not enjoy or will be easily overwhelmed doing. It’s ok to not have outside activities every day, and it’s important that we don’t forget it is ok to reschedule or just say “no” when that is what our family needs!
Pick Your Favorite Activities
“Less is more…” may mean fewer activities for your family. Pick your favorite ones. Plan time before and after for your child to have “downtime” or time doing activities that are calming to them. This will help them be better prepared for the activities you do choose to participate in. Sometimes we try to schedule too much because we feel we have to see everyone during the short period of time we have, but we don’t have to see everyone during the holiday season – choose intentionally to spend time with those you may not see at other times during the year and plan times to visit other either before or after Christmas.
Plan an escape clause (pun intended) for a child who may become easily overwhelmed. Help them get away for a little while, or allow them to let you know when they are ready to leave an event. It could be a secret phrase or word they say. Or provide a quiet activity they can go do in a corner such as headphones and a movie, or anything else that helps them to get away and find the peace they need. You may need to explain this need to family and friends ahead of time so they are not offended when your child leaves the group in the middle of an activity to calm down.
Spread Things Out
Plan activities with plenty of downtime in between. We all need time to be at home with quieter activities and a closer to “normal” schedule. Arrange one big activity a week rather than five different activities in three days, with no breaks. Give yourself and/or your child permission to say “No.” It is ok to decline invitations (even from Grandma), or schedule a time that will be less busy to be with that person. It is also all right for you to make a final decision on the day of the event if your child is not having a good day. Give yourself permission to cancel, reschedule or otherwise change plans – that is the key to having a relaxed and positive holiday season.
Find Acceptable Alternatives
Whenever possible, find alternatives to those activities or foods our child wants to participate in but has difficulty with. Talk about this with your child. Saying “no” or canceling can be disappointing, but a plan “B” can really come in handy.
Be Sensitive to Food Sensitivities
Food allergies and sensitivities are challenging when so many things are geared around food for the holidays! Be prepared with food options that are allergy-friendly, and sensory-friendly. Volunteer to bring a snack you know your child loves or pack them an alternative snack and bring it with you.
Memories and Traditions
There are many ways to build memories and traditions with your kids. Holidays are about family, friends, and fun. Whatever activities you decide to do, build positive memories and treasure them. Take pictures. Create a scrapbook that gets the kids involved in writing, decorating and gluing – maybe include samples of their holiday schoolwork. Let them create your holiday décor. Remember that “less is more..” when it comes to all the holiday hustle and bustle. Establish new traditions and appreciate these years as your children grow. I hope these ideas and tools help you relish the time you spend with your children during the holiday!
About the author: Amy Vickrey holds a Masters of Science in Education, specializing in curriculum and instruction, from the University of Central Missouri and a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from Texas State University-San Marcos. She spent two years of college studying Interpretation for the Deaf and Deaf Studies and knows American Sign Language. Her teaching certifications include Special Education, English as a Second Language and Generalist (early childhood through fourth). She is now part of the Struggling Learners Department of True North Homeschool Academy. Amy loves the discovery approach to learning and believes that teaching children how to learn will help them reach their goals and dreams.
You have a special needs kiddo, and they are in high school. They are not quite up to grade level in Math or English or both, or it takes them a few years to get through what is traditionally a one-year program. The basics and therapy eat through your week, and there is no time for extracurriculars, and the list of concerns goes on. Special Needs parents have unique life challenges, including creating a Special Needs Transcript for their High School years.
Creating a Special Needs Transcript
The Basics of a Special Needs Transcript
- Vocational Transcripts are often 19 credits total, compared to a 24 credit College Prep or 28 credit Honors Transcript.
- You are going to want to list 4 credits of English, 3 of Math, 3 of Science, 3 of History, 1 of PE, ½ credits of Health, Speech and Computer and Bible and other electives
- A credit is generally considered to be 120 hours of work. You can organize this work by book study, lessons, practice, time logs, recitals, performances, hands-on work, etc.
You can list courses and subjects using either a traditional 4 x 4-course grid (which you can find on our True North Homeschool Tribe FB Group) with the subjects along the left-hand side and years along the top, or you can list courses by subject area. My only caution is that if your students hope to go into the military, they might not accept a by-subject transcript.
Transcripts, Special Needs and Graduation
Your special needs student may not be able to handle high school level classes or may struggle with what would be considered traditional high school work in a specific subject area. It is perfectly acceptable to list courses that your students are capable of, regardless of the level or “grade.” If your student is 15 and capable of 4th grade English, list English on the transcript and give them full credit for an entire year worth of work, along with the grade that they earn.
According to Federal law, children with disabilities have the right to stay in school until they complete their school program or until they turn 21, whichever comes first. That is good news as you manage and balance life skills, academic, and vocational training and therapies. Give yourself – and your student! – the time they need to develop and succeed!
Can therapies “Count” for Credit?
Absolutely! You can log PT and OT for PE credit. Special needs tutoring or educational therapies can count towards credit in subject areas. You can use logs to keep track of credit hours.
How About Hobbies and Electives?
Inevitably, parents underestimate what their students have done and what they are capable of. Dramatic or musical theater can count towards Speech, Music, Drama, etc. Working in a computer repair shop can be logged and count towards Community Service, BCIS- depending on how detailed and involved the work was -or sales and marketing.
I worked with a student a few years ago who, at age 16, could not manage writing a complete sentence. This same student successfully co-owned and operated a model train store with his Mom. He had customers from around the world who understood that his speech impediment would in no way impeded the high quality of service and attention to detail that he would offer every customer.
The Power of the Parent
So many parents of Struggling Learners and Special Needs students go above and beyond looking for resources, experiences, tutors, and therapies that bolster and build their students ability to succeed. Too often, the parent doesn’t understand how to transcribe these experiences, travel, therapies, and P.E. opportunities into credits. Boy Scouts, 4-H, etc. and other similar programs can translate into so many academic credits. Think creatively!
Now, where to start?
Parents of struggling learners and Special Needs are often thrust into a world that requires a lot of research and going beyond the normal. High school can be especially daunting. But you don’t’ have to go it alone! Connect with other Special Needs parents and homeschooling companies that partner with Struggling Learners and Special Needs.
Our favorites include SPED Homeschool and of course, our Special Needs Academic Advising, Classes, and FB Group: Survive and Thrive Special Needs Homeschool.
Our Special Needs Academic Advising program was explicitly created to come alongside struggling learners and special needs families. We will do a credit evaluation (and find those “hidden” credits you may have overlooked), recommend curriculum, classes, and programs, develop a Personalized Learning Plan, and provide the support you need to manage to homeschool successfully.
The world of Struggling Learners and Special Needs can be tricky to manage, but thankfully, with the resources available today, you don’t have to go it alone!
You pulled your child from traditional school (or maybe you never started at all) because the environment just wasn’t suited for their needs. Now you’re at home, learning together, all the time. You’ve started to notice little things that are preventing your child from focusing and truly showing their abilities. It’s so frustrating!
Easy Homeschool Hacks for Kids with Special Needs
There are simple ways that you can 100% change your homeschooling story.
Some of these are definitely adapted from the traditional classroom – but only because they work! As with all things homeschooling, do what works best for your child today. Try things out, make some tweaks, and keep on learning together!
Task List or Schedule Chart
One thing that trips a lot of kids with special needs – as well as typically developing kids – up is keeping things in order, knowing what’s next and anticipating changes.
Making a simple visual schedule helps children feel settled and in control. They can see their week, day, morning or even just their current task.
You can totally adapt traditional classroom tools to DIY your own schedule! Grab a hanging single strip calendar organizer with clear plastic pockets and some schedule cards or sentence strips. Write out things that you do in your homeschool regularly. Think: subjects, special activities, breaks, etc. For pre-readers, you can use pictures printed from online. For older kids who can tell time, include a time. You can just add this on the spot with sticky notes or using a whiteboard marker.
Hang your daily schedule in your learning zone or a prominent place in your home. To make a change in the schedule, just swap the cards around. If your child can’t handle a full day of things to do, keep it super simple with just the first 2-4 activities.
Your child will be able to anticipate what’s coming up and feel more confident flowing through the day.
Above the Line/Below the Line
Everyone has things they’d prefer to do, especially kids. For children that push back on learning one particular subject or doing a certain activity, an above the line/below the line chart helps.
Basically, it’s a contract between you and your child. If they can commit to completing 2-4 items of “must do” work, then they can reward themselves with a preferred activity from below the line.
For example, my child must complete Daily Language, one math lesson worksheet/activity and clean up any learning materials used. Then, she can grab a book to read together, choose an educational show to watch or enjoy free time with the music of her choice.
Showing the reward for positive, productive work on non-preferred items is a super motivational tool.
Make your own chart by laminating a piece of construction paper. With a permanent marker, draw a line about ½ to ⅔ of the way down. Above the line, draw as many lines as work items you’d like your child to complete, numbering each line; every day write in your child’s “must do” work. Below the line, using a whiteboard marker, write out the rewards available each day. This keeps things adaptable. Simply erase yesterday’s work and rewards to have a clean slate!
Chunking Work for Success
Plowing through all your work in one big learning session does seem like the most sensible thing to do sometimes. Unless it backfires and you’ve got a meltdown on your hands before half the things are done.
Instead, try chunking out your working time. Work for 5-10 minutes, then take a break and do something else. This is a great time to do physical activity like yoga or “heavy work” – squats, pushups, etc. You could also put on soft music and dim the lights to meditate. Having a healthy snack is another great option!
Building in breaks helps the work seem more manageable. These breaks shouldn’t be super long. Just a few minutes, about 3-5 minutes, is usually enough to reset.
There are two ways to handle the work chunks.
- Work in 5-10 min blocks, continuing with the same task/subject/project until complete before switching to a new task or subject.
- Work on one task for 5-10 minutes, take a short break, then start a new task or project; whatever you get done in each working block is considered good enough for today, you can continue with the same assignment tomorrow if needed.
Sensory Tools to Stay Focused
Ever notice that your child calms down when they’re holding a certain blanket or bouncing on an exercise ball? Use it!
Try these simple sensory hacks to help your child focus:
- Velcro strip: attach a small piece of Velcro – either one side or both sides – to your child’s primary working space; your child can stick and unstick two pieces of Velcro or rub their fingers over their preferred side (rough/soft).
- Exercise ball seating: for kids that wiggle, sit them on an exercise ball – either on its own or as part of a chair system; balancing or bouncing keeps their body engaged, works out the wiggles and helps their mind focus.
- Squishy things: use a stress ball, slime or other squishy things to help your child focus; your child can manipulate the squishy as they work – providing a calming and focusing effect.
- Resistance band chair: stretch a heavy resistance band around the front two legs of your child’s chair; they can rest their legs on it to swing back and forth or push down against the pressure.
- Fidgets: slide beads along a rope, play with a Koosh ball or fiddle with a small car – fidgets can help your child keep their mind more focused by providing movement.
- Get creative! Use what your child already loves; offer a preferred object as a reward or to hold/use while working.
These three simple changes can make homeschooling a child with mild to moderate special needs, like ADHD, much easier.
What are your favorite hacks to simplify homeschooling a child with different learning needs or styles?
(Are you looking for academic advising or online courses for your special needs homeschool student? Check out all of our services at True North Homeschool Academy.)
Meg Flanagan, founder of Meg Flanagan Education, is a teacher, mom and military spouse. She is dedicated to making the K-12 education experience easier for military families. Meg holds an M.Ed in special education and a BS in elementary education. She is a certified teacher in both elementary and special education in Massachusetts and Virginia.
Meg regularly writes for MilitaryOneClick, Military Shoppers, and NextGen MilSpouse. You can find Meg, and MilKids, online on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter.
To get actionable solutions to common K-12 school problems, parents should check out Talk to the Teacher by Meg Flanagan.
When You Are No Longer Part of the Pretty Party
Does the following sounds familiar to you?
I recently received a diagnosis. I knew something was “off,” but I brushed it aside, telling myself I should work harder, have more robust moral fiber, hurt and complain less, function more clearly and “get it together.” The diagnosis named all of those little things that were “off” and made me aware of some I’d just considered “normal.” My normal is, apparently, not everyone’s.
I did some research, got on some sites, and freaked out pretty thoroughly. My future, in living color, doesn’t look pretty. Literally. Those aches and pains can be expected to get worse. That weak moral fiber I have accused myself of for decades is going to have to be part of my action plan. Others won’t see, and if they do, they’ll pity. I’m judged on something I have no control over, doesn’t have a cure, and while not life-threatening, was definitely not part of my best life scenario.
I cried. I actually cried quite a lot. Not that anything changed, but more things made sense. But the losses seem more permanent with the naming of the thing. No amount of my working harder or smarter will change the outcome. It is what it is. And now, instead of fighting to get on top of a small thing, I will be fighting just to keep going.
The diagnosis changes everything.
This little naming and knowing changes things with what I do and who I do it with. The comments that I have made, observing my own state of being and ability, are straight off the diagnosis page. Who knew?
And now the action plan. What do I need to do? Can I afford to do it? What do I need to grieve and give-up and move away from?
Those other people- the beautiful ones-the ones still at the pretty party; they have what I do not, what I won’t have. I am no longer a part of the pretty party. I haven’t been for a long time, but the knowledge that I know have seems to make it permanent. The pretty party is not all-inclusive, and I am definitely not on the party list.
And so I grieve that too, the fact that I don’t belong. The truth is that I feel judged and that others don’t want to include me – as if my struggle would rub off on them. I feel a desperate need to seek out others who are struggling to make the best of rotten realities.
I find them, and they are welcoming and open-armed. These people are helpful, responsive, and offer good advice. Advice like, go ahead and cry, see this doc, read this article, stay away from this misinformation. Things like, “you can’t be cured, but you can be well.” “You might not have your ideal best life, but you can have a beautiful, good enough life.” And I find myself crying a little bit now, too. I’m crying in relief at having found my people; grateful for the tribe and sorrow that it’s mine. It’s fine to feel both, as you grieve over having lost your ideal.
(Still looking for your “tribe?” Check out our Special Needs Homeschool Facebook group, Survive & Thrive.)
Maybe this sounds familiar because you’ve received a diagnosis.
You’ve just found out that your beautiful child is dyslexic, or autistic, or has a processing disorder. Maybe you’ve found out that your sweet little one is ADHD or on the spectrum. Life will never be the same, but it can still be a beautiful, good life.
Take the time you need to regroup and re-calibrate and realize that this will be an on-going process.
Some tips on getting through a tough diagnosis:
- Grieve the losses. Grieve your new reality.
- Research an action plan
- What do you need to do?
- What can you afford to do?
- Find resources and people who have the same struggles. Find a tribe.
- Give yourself time as you re-calibrate and re-group.
- Give yourself time. Eventually your new reality will be, if not your ideal, o.k. And you will be the one opening arms to others who are desperately seeking their tribe.
Not sure where to start? We can help!
First, check out our post, After the Diagnosis, to form an action plan. Then, when you are ready, seek out our Special Needs Academic Advising, which will help you move your plan into action. If you feel like you just need more, we also offer Summer Boot Camps and Special Needs year-long classes.
Another great resource is SPED Homeschool. Check them out today!