There are few periods in a person’s life when goal-directed problem solving behavior is as important as it is in middle and secondary school.  Trouble meeting all of the expectations placed on middle and secondary school students impedes many highly capable students’ academic and personal success. Further, it may pose a risk to students’ long-term self-conception as competent people.  In this article, I will briefly introduce a couple of guiding principles that characterize the kinds of interventions that make a difference in the lives of children who face significant difficulties with executive function.

What are our Children facing?

To begin, we should examine the process most conducive to effective management of the various tasks expected of a student at this level.  To deliver work of acceptable quality on time, a child must master a habitual process of planning and prioritizing work as they monitor their own progress and effectiveness.  For example, in a writing project this entails juggling detailed considerations such as, “Is this a grammatical sentence?” with “Does this address the assigned topic?” with bigger-picture considerations, such as “Am I on pace to finish this by the due date?”

For children who encounter difficulty managing this process, their difficulty can resemble a clog in a funnel.  With too many considerations vying for his attention, a child may become overwhelmed and allow initially small problems to accumulate and compound one another.  By externalizing certain considerations, we can help him to consider fewer things at a time and to more effectively allocate the attention available.

How can we intervene?

If a child faces difficulty with executive function, the less encumbered she is by competing considerations, the better she will perform in school. Simplicity, where it can be achieved, will tend to enable children to achieve considerably more than they otherwise could.

For example, for a child who has difficulty monitoring, “Am I finishing this fast enough?”  Put a timer on the wall so that she can easily check herself.  For children who face difficulty with complex processes, try visual procedural reminders on a wall or a desk.  These or similar measures simplify matters, and allow the remaining items to flow more smoothly through.