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5 Ways to Build Executive Function Skills over the Summer

The school year has ended! No more late assignments, messy backpacks, homework fights, and all the other joyous things that come with having an ADHD child or teen. But, the stress of last year has had an effect and the desire for change is burning bright in your heart.

This summer, you think, we'll get organized. I'll get this kid (or these kids) whipped into shape for next year. I'll hire a tutor. They'll work on academic skills. They'll increase their reading comprehension; they'll develop their writing abilities. They'll learn study skills and how to take notes and how to be more organized. I'll make a chore chart. We'll follow it religiously. They'll learn how to keep their rooms clean; they'll do their own laundry. Our lives will be revolutionized and all our problems will be solved!!

Sound familiar? Been there, done that? And what always happens??  Well, you soon discover that summer has its own craziness. Different schedules for different weeks of camp. Travel and picnics and pool parties and the inevitable sickness that puts the household out of whack for at least a week. By the end of June, you find yourself drowning in a pile of wet towels, sunblock, bug spray and sweaty camp t-shirts. Top it off with the fact that many ADHD students are exhausted from the school year and deeply resistant to anything that smacks of academics and your best laid plans go out the window.

Here are some ideas to build executive function skills using the things that are already happening in the summer:

Skill #1: Breaking a task into chunks.  Summer activities provide many opportunities for planning ahead. For example, let’s say swim team is having a pasta potluck. Bringing a pasta dish to the event involves a number of steps: choosing a dish to bring, buying the appropriate ingredients, preparing the dish, transporting items while keeping them hot and remembering serving items. Try involving your child or teen in this process. A few days before the pot luck, maybe while eating dinner, brainstorm ideas as to what to make, next show them the recipe and ask for their help to make a list for the grocery store (model the step of checking your fridge and pantry for items you already have), discuss what day you will need to go shopping in order to have all your ingredients in time for cooking, have your child/teen shop with you and/or help prepare the item (discuss with them how long it takes to cook and back up planning from there), and finally, discuss how you will transport your item in the car so it doesn’t spill or cool off too much. As you can see, there are a number of steps to this process. Your child or teen does not need to be involved in every step. Even involving them in some of the tasks can be an excellent way to model these skills.

Skill #2: Using a list and/or having some method of noting down things that should not be forgotten. Before we went to the beach each year, I would print out numerous copies of our packing list and tape them to the walls of my children’s rooms. As they packed, they would check off items on the list. Lists can be made for daily items to bring to camp and then the child can refer to the list each night when re-packing their backpack and setting out their clothes for the next day. Consider using sticky notes for reminders. Maybe your child or teen can put a sticky note on their camp backpack to remember to get their lunch and water bottle out of the fridge before leaving. Consider posting a large family calendar or planner in a spot that everyone can see. One key for planners, however, is not to use them solely for noting events - as important as that is. Your planner should include the steps that need to be taken before going to an event. So, items like shopping, cooking, wrapping gifts, etc . . ., should also make it onto your schedule. You can model these skills for your child or teen and/or involve them in the process. 

Skill #3: Preparing ahead of time: Each summer, my kids attended various week-long camps. Often these camps came with a t-shirt or a uniform that the child would need (or prefer) to wear day after day.  This meant shirts or uniform needed to be washed each night as they were most often dirty and sweaty at the end of each camp session. Involve your child/teen in planning what they will need for the next day. If it requires a camp t-shirt to be washed, have each child take off their shirt and get them all in the wash as soon as they get home OR, if they are stressed or overwhelmed upon arriving home, wait until after dinner to perform this task. Perhaps the children can rotate being assigned to the laundry each day. After the shirts are dry, have each child set out all elements of what they will need to wear the next morning: shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, maybe sunblock and bug spray, perhaps swimsuit and towel . If your kids will be taking a backpack each day, have them reload their packs and set them by the front door. (As mentioned above, anything that can’t be put in bag because it needs to be kept cold or, perhaps, is not dry yet - use a sticky note)

Skill #4: Realistic evaluation of time. Children and teens with ADHD (and adults for that matter!) tend to perceive tasks as taking much longer or much shorter than they actually do.  So, an individual might feel that prepping for the next day will take hours while getting ready for camp in the morning will take minutes - neither of which is true. One thing that can help is timing tasks and sometimes making tasks a game. So, after dinner, but right before watching a movie, set a time for 5-10 minutes and challenge your kids to gather everything they need for camp the next day or to lay out their clothes for dressing in the morning. Seeing how quickly these tasks actually take, can make them less painful and may, over time, decrease resistance to doing them. On the flip side, try timing how long it takes everyone to get ready in the morning (without their knowledge) and how long it takes to drive to camp. In a calm moment, tell them what this time added up to and use this to set what time they will need to wake up. 

Skill #5: Building in margins. Individuals who have ADHD often don’t plan for the mishaps of life. They insist it only takes 10 minutes to drive to church. And that is true IF you leave on time and IF there are no traffic back-ups and IF no one gets stuck in the bathroom last minute and IF no one spills their water bottle and IF the dog doesn’t escape out the front door and so on and so forth. Begin to model for your child the concept of building in margins of time so that problems can be dealt with. If you plan to leave 15 minutes earlier than you THINK you need to leave for swim practice, then you can adjust for issues like spills and forgetting items and traffic snarls, etc . . Teach them the general rule that, if you want to be on time, always plan to arrive a bit ahead of the time you are aiming for and always plan for problems to occur.

Summer is filled with opporunities to practice executive function skills in a non-academic manner. Take some time to think of how you might implement executive function skill practice into the life of your child or teen this summer. And if you feel too overwhelmed to do this yourself, get in touch and we'll make a plan together!

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