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Help Your Student Succeed

Many children struggle with remembering assignments and keeping their backpacks tidy. But for children with Attention Deficit Disorder, these struggles, dubbed executive functioning (EF) weaknesses, can be much worse and can manifest as serious problems at school, from forgetting to turn in assignments to failing to initiate work on a long-term project. In their book Late, Lost and Unprepared, Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel define executive functions as “a set of processes that have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

Joey Wofford, director of curriculum and instruction at Plano’s Great Lakes Academy, a private school that works with students who have learning differences, says children with EF weaknesses have particular trouble with homework.

“They don’t do well with planning, organizing, keeping track of time,” she says. “They could have a project or paper, and they can’t visualize where they should be going with it, if they can even get started on it. They have trouble initiating activities.”

Naturally, these struggles can lead to frustration. And, when children already have trouble keeping their emotions in check, this frustration can transform into behavioral issues, says Wofford.

But, parents don’t have to give up hope on their son or daughter’s success and happiness in school: Plenty of help is available — both medical treatments and simple tips that parents can use at home — to help children overcome EF weaknesses and succeed in school.

Director of Dallas’ Clements Clinic, Dr. Todd Clements (an expert on ADD/ADHD and neurofeedback), says ADD treatment varies from medication to life coaching to dietary changes (such as a high-protein or high-carbohydrate diet) and even an increase in exercise.

For some students with attention challenges, exercise can mean the difference between focused work and incomplete homework assignments. “Sometimes children with ADD, when they get home from school, we’ll have them do 30 minutes of exercise and then have them sit down and do their homework,” he says. “It increases the activity in their frontal lobes” and, thus, their concentration.”

Clements says he uses brain imaging to evaluate blood flow and activity patterns in ADD patients’ brains, which helps doctors determine the best course for treating the condition and improving brain functioning.

“People with ADD rarely have problems with their brain’s anatomy; it’s a problem with the way it functions,” he says. “We see people with ADD who have had treatment and haven’t gotten better and maybe actually got worse. We see what else is going on and what kept the treatment from being successful. Is there something else going on in another part of the brain?”

In addition to a medical and/or educational evaluation, Wofford says children with EF weaknesses need lots of checklists, to-do lists and assignment books to keep them on track. She recommends breaking assignments into smaller pieces so they’re more manageable.

Wofford offers several additional tips that her school uses to help students manage their assignments: “One of the things we do is use a lot of various colored highlighters,” she says. “The students use them so they can organize their thoughts.”

She also recommends that students with EF challenges receive oral and written instructions and use calendars daily so they can visualize how much time they have before an assignment is due.
Parents whose children struggle with EF weaknesses should team up with their child’s teacher and ask for help on behalf of their child, she adds.

“A lot of times parents are afraid to admit their student has a learning difference or are afraid to tell the teacher because they’re afraid their student will be treated differently,” Wofford says. “But with these kids, the only way they are going to be successful is if the teachers are on top of it. It’s only as successful as the teachers.”