Written by: Natalie Mizzi

Let’s Break Down Breaking It Down – Executive Functioning

Executive functioning plays an important role in our ability to navigate daily task and co-ordinate goal-oriented behaviour. These abilities are controlled by our pre-frontal cortex which is located at the front of our brain. 

Executive functioning difficulties are often referred to as executive dysfunction and this is a common challenge for many autistic children and those with ADHD. This may look like the following in the classroom or at home 

  • Speaking over others in conversation 
  • Difficulty focusing or hyper focusing and having difficulty moving away  
  • Difficulty shifting attention from one activity to another 
  • Finding it hard to predict future outcomes  
  • Finding if difficult to cope with unexpected change 
  • Taking longer to organize self and materials to being a task 
  • Forgetting details and/or materials  
  • Difficulty with multi-step instructions 
  • Needing to be re-directed to the task at hand 
  • Not finishing a test or exam because of poor time management 

A common strategy often recommended by allied health professionals to support executive functioning is to break tasks down. The intention of this is to create smaller, more achievable step within the main task to avoid overwhelm and anxiety. This can also assist with motivation, direction, and planning. Breaking tasks down is a great strategy, but often, children with executive functioning difficulties require even more support.  

Let’s think about asking a child to get dressed in the morning. Seems simple?

Now, let’s think about asking a child who has executive functioning difficulties to get dressed in the morning.

Let’s break it down

11) Go to school with enough energy and cognitive load to get through the day!

10) How did I go? Oh man… my jumper is on backwards

9) Time management “Why aren’t you dressed, it’s 8:30am?”

8) Focus. Focus. Focus. My Nintendo Switch! wait no, focus, What’s next?

7) Don’t forget to monitor. Are your shoes on the right feet? Which one is left?

6) Begin! Initiate! Go! Start! Move!… why aren’t you moving?

5) Organise. Where are my shoes? I left them here last night!?!

4) Plan. Undies have to go on before pants and socks before shoes right?

3) Consider the options. Hmmm Spiderman or Minecraft undies?

2) Decide what to wear – socks, undies, jumper if its cold, shorts if its hot

1) Today is Wednesday. I have to put my uniform on.

Exhausted reading that? Imagine doing it. For those who have strong executive abilities, each of these steps comes automatically and you may not even realise that you are engaging in them individually. The task “get dressed” is considered as one activity. For those with executive functioning difficulties, each step is individual, requiring its own energy.

So how can you help? It’s all about balancing the person’s cognitive load so as to avoid overload and burnout. What might this look like?

10) Evaluate together. Take a photo of your child in their school uniform and put it on the back of their door. Have them look at the completed picture as a point of reference.

9)Use a visual timer / clock

8) Reduce distractions where possible. Refer back to the schedule / visual / task

7) Monitor with them. “What step are you up to on your schedule?”

6) This is tricky and we cannot expect a young person to always be able to initiate a task on their own. Begin the routine with them. Get them on the roll. Engage their siblings in the routine at the same time. Involve the dog! I’m going to put Fluffy’s jacket on and you take your PJ’s off

5) Lay items out the night before. Have them all in one place. At the end of their bed, on their desk, in a hula hoop!

4) Use visuals with a clear order

3) Support your child to make the choice before the morning. Decide on Spiderman or Minecraft before going to bed

2) Depending on age, have the child check a weather app with you the night before to decide on what uniform to wear or decide for them (this is not hindering their independence but rather setting them up for success)

1) Have a visual schedule or calendar up in their room. Make it clear on what days regular uniform is worn and what days sports uniform is worn

To remember

  • Helping your child complete components of a routine does not hinder their independence
  • Directing your child to a visual/support in place of you answering them is supporting their independence
  • Executive dysfunction can be a major cause of fatigue and meltdown
  • If your child is unable to engage in the broken-down step… it needs to be broken down again… and again… and again until you find that sweet spot where they can experience success. Then move up
  • Your child’s psychologist can work with you to break tasks down

For more information

The Autism Discussion Page – Facebook

The Autism Discussion Page on Stress, Anxiety, Shutdowns and Meltdown – by Bill Nason

About the author
Natalie Mizzi
Natalie is a registered psychologist who works with children, adolescents, young adults, and families in a range of contexts including schools, early intervention, and research.
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