Resolutions and Reflections that Work for Kids with Executive Function Needs

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How to Make the Most of Reflections and Resolutions

New year is a fresh start. To be truly “fresh,” though, we have to commit to staying aware of the habits we have that keep us in old ruts and unhealthy patterns. One great place to look is at your reactions to your child or students.

 Are you shoulding on them?

Are you taking it personally?

Is it a puzzle or a problem?

Are you seeking new information and ideas?

If you find yourself having a human moment and not reacting the way you’d like to, one way to pause and reframe is to tell yourself to “strategize the struggle.” It will help pull you away from the emotional reactivity and get you into detective mode, searching for what’s missing, what’s working, and what you could coach in your child.

I’ll give you an example of my human moment. Steven had his school-issued Ipad taken away for misusing it. He had found a way to sneak onto YouTube instead of doing his work in his classes. And lately he’s been wandering the classroom and I’m “shoulding” because it’s a new “behavior.” It’s like he’s my shadow, and I’m going crazy, in reactive mode. He should just sit down. And it’s personal because I just told him to “just sit down” and he’s not listening to me. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t respect me. Am I too nice to my kids? Should I punish him by making him sit more? Or…strategize the struggle. His Ipad used to keep him busy, in his seat. Now he’s seeking the stimulation he used to get from the ipad by walking around. It’s just as off task, but now it’s not as well disguised. His skill deficit is in managing his attention and stimulation level (without bothering others). If I expect it, I need to teach it.

When I strategize the struggle, I have a totally new approach:

“I notice that…” Like, “I notice that you’ve been walking around a lot. That makes it hard for you and others to focus. What do you need in order to be able to sit down again?”

Or “It seems like…” For example, “It seems like you have a wiggly body that needs to move right now. How many minutes do you need to move around outside before you’re ready to work again?”

Or “What do you think you could try to… because I know you don’t like being in trouble all the time…”

Rather than: “Just sit down,” or even punishments for walking around.

Monitoring my reactions puts me into coach mode and helps model self-regulation (an EF skill!) Plus, the “problems” I solve with my student mean he’s developing skills that will help him in all classes and outside of school. That’s truly a goal I can resolve to meet in 2020!

Another thing people often do in the new year is reflect on the previous year, or in the case of the end of 2019, the previous decade. If in reviewing the year with your child you’re met with a lof of “I don’t know,” try any of these questions or question stems to get the conversation going.

*What went right this year?

*What did you like about ____?

*What was a challenge for you about ____?

*In which classes (or sports or activities) did you feel the most successful? In which did you feel the most challenged? Can you be both successful and challenged?

*Was there a class (or sport or activity) you dreaded? If you make a movie of that class in your mind, what do you see? What do you think made that class bad for you?

As you talk, again, be mindful of your reactions. Responding with corrections or judgement will shut your kid off! Instead, try reflective listening, where you rephrase what you heard. You’ll be amazed at how much more your child will share. Here are some ideas for reflective listening:

*I hear you saying that…

*It sounds like…

*Tell me if I got this right? You are saying…

This will feel artificial at first. Maybe even corny. But, it is magic to help someone feel heard! Even when I detect others are using this strategy on me (talking to you, husband of mine), I still appreciate feeling heard. Using reflective listening does not mean that you agree or condone what you are hearing. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t address the issues brought up…at a later time. It only means you’re validating that you’ve heard the person sharing. You are always welcome to spin the ideas around in your head for a while and come back to your child with follow up questions or ideas. For example, the other day you shared with me that…and I was wondering if… or, I thought maybe we could try…

One last thing to keep in mind is that while reviewing a past year and planning for a new year can be exciting, these activities will not be magic solutions for all of our problems. For our kids with EF deficits, this can be an entertaining activity that goes nowhere. EF deficit brains have a hard time extending ideas from one situation to another (in education we call this generalizing) and an especially hard time with the invisible bridge between knowing and doing. I think we all have a hard time with this. Think of how many times you’ve known you should have not had that extra piece of cake, but you’ve done it anyway. Or you’ve known you do better with more sleep, but you’ve stayed up anyway. Yet, we get mad at our kids for being able to state a rule right after they break it…double standard, my friends! For resolutions to be effective for our kids with EF challenges, we need to be ready to coach them with in-the-moment feedback.

Say your child resolves to “be more organized.” First, you can help her see what this looks like by walking her through a few mental movie scenes:

What do you see when you look at your organized backpack?

What does your room look like organized?

How about your time and schedule?

Next, you can help her clarify down to one, doable goal. Is she wanting to be more organized in her physical space? Her brain? Her time? Which of the choices that she pictured would bring the most stress relief? A realistic resolution would be to have an organized backpack for 6 weeks in a row. Taking on too much will lead to frustration and disappointment, so a short-term, very specific goal is best.

Now that she has a goal, you can coach her through setting up her organization system (I’ll have more on this in an upcoming podcast!) and support her ideas for maintaining it. If she realizes that she’ll need reminders to check every day, plan how to heavily support her at first, then fade out, possibly replacing yourself with a digital alert instead. P.S. If she needs you to be her prompt for longer than you want to be, no one is failing! It’s just where she is at the moment, and chances are she’s missing an EF skill that we haven’t recognized yet. There is no “should.” Remember that.

In-the-moment coaching can look and sound like lots of things, but here are a few question stems I’ve found most effective with my kids:

*What’s your plan for…?

*What help do you need to….(get task done)?

*What’s your first step to…?

*Do you want me to time you to see how quick you are at…?

*What do you think your body (or brain) needs to be able to…?

Notice that with all of these stems there are positive assumptions and high expectations behind them. “What’s your plan for…”assumes the child will take action and has a plan. If they say “I don’t know,” I can hit them with another question or say “hmm” and wait. People hate quiet space in conversations and will often scrape deep in their brains for solutions if you just give them time. If the child truly doesn’t know, then they’re not quite ready for independent action with my coaching, and I may need to back up and teach the skill again. And again, it’s not a failure if this happens. We missed something, so we try again.

The point of in-the-moment coaching is that we are giving feedback and support as the action takes place. This helps a few ways. First, it gets prompts into your child’s brain. When I learned to lift weights, my trainer had a few prompts he’d repeat for certain exercises. His voice is now in my head and muscle memory, and I can still lean on the prompts for adjustments when I am working out. Second, it helps your child take ownership of his actions and the consequences they bring. Often our students with EF deficits struggle to connect their choices and what happens due to their choices, so they feel like victims. But, giving feedback at the time helps them see that they have self-efficacy and a great influence on their future success! We’ll dive more deeply into this in a few weeks.

I truly hope 2020 is your best year yet! Time for 2019’s very last Pep Talk:

Happy New Year, kid!

I imagine you’re enjoying having a break from school. It’s always a nice thing to let our brains and bodies rest a bit. Your adult who listens to this show just learned some ideas for starting fresh in the new year and how to look back on the past year. I’m going to give you some ideas to talk about with your adult. You can listen to (or read) the question, then pause to talk it over. There are no wrong answers. Ready?

*What went right this year?

*What did you like about ____?

*What was a challenge for you about ____?

*In which classes (or sports or activities) did you feel the most successful? In which did you feel the most challenged? Can you be both successful and challenged?

*Was there a class (or sport or activity) you dreaded? If you make a movie of that class in your mind, what do you see? What do you think made that class bad for you?

If you want, you can write out or draw your answers. Then, you can be a detective and look for patterns. Was there something the same about the classes you liked? What about the classes you didn’t like? Now that you see the patterns, you can think about ways to either get more of what you liked or find strategies to rise above the junk that drove you crazy! You’re about to hit “reset” and start a new year. It’s a great chance to try new ways of studenting! And I’m excited to be part of that journey with you.

 All my love and happy new Year!