Earlier this year, I introduced the topic of Executive Functioning Skills! If you missed it, you can check out that post here! I will be doing a series of posts that focus on different elements of Executive Functioning Skills to really give a sense of what they mean and the strategies you can implement to help improve these skills in your children or students!
The Coles Notes of Executive Functioning Skills
- Executive Functioning Skills are the tools that help us execute functions - go figure!
- They help us plan, problem solve and manage emotions
- These skills need to be explicitly taught to most kids
- Without these skills, kids start to fall apart with tasks that have many large parts or even more than one step
- Kids with lagging Executive Functioning skills may demonstrate deficits in academic and behavioural areas
While there are many different sources and infographics out there, I really liked this one to break down the different elements of Executive Functioning.
The one element I wanted to focus on today was Task Initiation (element #7 in the image above).
As a teacher, we give a variety of styles of tasks to tap into the different learning profiles of our kids. Sometimes they are hands-on, other times they are pencil to paper tasks. Sometimes the task is independent, and others the work is done in partners or small groups. Ultimately, the bottom line remains the same. The teacher gives an instruction and the students go to complete the task by following those instructions.
Easier. Said. Than. Done.
Educators use a variety of methods to help students ensure that they are set up for success before they send them off to begin. Here are some of the ways we do this:
1) Say the instructions orally.
2) Have the instructions posted visually (top of the page, on the board, etc.)
3) Number the instructions in order of completion.
4) Have a student repeat back the instructions.
5) Show a model of the finished product or result, if applicable.
These are just SOME of the ways educators help support students in task initiation. However, for a child with lagging Executive Functioning Skills, it can be predicted that once they are sent off to complete the task, they will sit there, unsure how to begin. They are lacking that ability to look at a task, understand Step #1 and make a plan for how to begin.
So, how can we support this student or child?
This skill will need to be supported and practiced over time in order to help the child build and consolidate it.
Here are some ways you can support a child who struggles with task initiation.
Chunk multi-step instructions. If you are instructing your child to complete a task with more than 2 steps, they likely will be unable to remember more than one or two. This is because the working memory skills are still developing or perhaps, are an area of weakness for the child. In order to support this, give one or two basic steps at a time. Once those steps are complete, check in and give the next step. This applies to big kids and big tasks, too! If your assignment is something large, like a project or an essay, have the child work through one component at a time. If you review the entire project in one go, chances are they've already forgotten the things you've said at the start. Have them work through the first part, and check in.
Start at the beginning. No, like the VERY beginning. Did you tell all of your students the first step to complete? You may have said something like, "When you get your worksheet, use the pattern blocks to make the pattern you see on the card and recreate the pattern on the paper you've been given". Well, beyond needing to chunk this instruction for this child, you may need to go a few steps further back than most. For example, "When you leave the carpet, go and get a pencil and wait at your desk for the next instruction". It's easy to remember, direct and will set them up for success before they start. Then when you check in, give the next step which may be to write their name at the top of the page. Often, children who lack task initiation skills are also struggling to organize materials and independently execute the basic beginning steps that they will need in order to complete said task.
Checklists and Independence. Building independence with these skills is so important. For routines that require steps that are the same (e.g. starting a task in the classroom) you can print and laminate a checklist to keep at their work station. It could include steps such as:
Getting Started Checklist
- Get a pencil and eraser.
- Get the worksheet.
- Write name at the top of page
- Write the date (it's on the board!)
- Get any other materials you need (glue, scissors, pencil crayons, etc.)
This will help them automatize the skill more independently (and will make it so that you don't need to check in quite as often). Eventually, you can say something like "Did you go through all of the things on the checklist?". This will prompt them to go back and read it to ensure they didn't miss any steps.
Timers and Countdowns. Sometimes our kids get stuck. They have all of the materials but they just can't begin. They begin brainstorming but then lose focus, get distracted, or just need some help getting started. Timers can be helpful here! Let them have 2-3 minutes to get situated, brainstorm, and then when the timer is done - they must start the task.
*A note about timers - for some kids, timers actually make things worse because it stresses them out! Each child is different and it may not work for yours. Trial and error is your best bet until you find a system that works for you*
Physically Break Down Tasks. Are you giving a task with lots of worksheets or paper attached? Are there a lot of questions or large sections of small font text on a page? This can be visually overwhelming for a child who struggles to get started. Space out the text or questions on a page, use larger font, or organize the page into a graphic organizer (tons of templates there for you!) style. Instead of handing them a big package or booklet, give them one page at a time. The loads of pages can feel like an insurmountable mountain of work to a child who struggles with overcoming the very first step.
Tap into Interests. If you have a child who struggles to initiate writing tasks and is developing a strong aversion to any task with writing involved, use their interests to help motivate them to begin. If you know they love superheros and you are getting the kids to write an opinion piece, try to spin the task to be about their interest - e.g. Who is a better superhero, Batman or Superman? Support your answer with evidence and examples! Ultimately, if the writing goal is opinion writing, don't focus so much on the topic if it is the difference between them initiating and completing the task or not.
Sentence Starters. Some kids look at a big empty page of lines and they panic. They don't know how to start their writing. By providing sentence starters (the first few words of a sentence) this helps to steer their thoughts in the right direction and acts more as a "fill in the blank" or "complete the sentence" activity. It takes some of the mental pressure off of them to decide how to begin.
Frequent Breaks and Check-ins. Providing breaks between task components will help the student stay focused when they are working. Let them know that when they complete the first section or the first major step, they can take a short walk or a water break before beginning the next step. Decide on what these breaks look like with your child and set expectations before beginning. The break should match the effort - the child should not get 10 minutes on the iPad because they wrote their name at the top of the page. Breaks allow our kids to reset and refresh before diving back into focus. Timers can help here, too! Make sure to check in at each step to ensure the student is on the right track and intervene or re-direct if need be.
Peer Partners. When a kid is receiving a lot of frequent support from the adults, they may begin to feel self-conscious about this. It's important to use flexible grouping to help the child learn from their peers as much as the adults. Pairing and grouping students in a variety of ways helps them learn from each other. Sometimes educators pair a student who is confident in a task or concept, with a student who is still developing those skills. Other times, educators put students who are at a similar learning level together so they can be supported by an adult in one group. Other times, it's a mixed bag so all can learn from each other. Ensuring that you are constantly mixing up the grouping will help your child model and learn from other children. If you are learning from home, this can be done with siblings or virtually with peers or family friends!
Positive Reinforcement. Did your child or student go to get the pencil without being asked? Did you arrive to their work station to see they've already written their name? Did they attempt to begin the task before the timer was up? CELEBRATE the victories, no matter how small. Be specific - I love the way you wrote your name on the top of the page! Be timely - praise as quickly as possible after the desired behaviour or action. Be excited - smile, high five, look the child in the eyes and let them know that you are feeling proud of them!! You don't need bribes, stickers or prizes.
I hope these tips help you to support your child at home. If you are in need of additional support, please reach out.