[excerpts from a forthcoming book by Chris A. Zeigler Dendy & Dr. Ruth Hughes]
Over the last 10 to 15 years educators and researchers discovered that executive skills have a profound impact not only on academic success, but also success in the workplace. In fact, researchers report that one particular executive skill, working memory, is a better predictor of academic success than an IQ score. Executive functions have been likened to the CEO of the brain or the conductor of the orchestra; these functions help control your thinking and actions.
Unfortunately, key executive functions (EF), controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, may be delayed developmentally as much as 3 to 5 years. So parents and teachers must adopt realistic expectations that take into consideration their developmental delay in organizational skills, ability to work independently, and control emotions. As a result of these delays, many students with deficits in executive skills will need more support and supervision from both parents and teachers during middle and high school. Even after high school graduation these young adults often need continued guidance and support. Consequently, they may not be ready for college or full-time employment immediately after graduating from high school.
Key Executive Functions
First, let’s identify key executive skills that are critical to success not only in school, but in life.
- Working memory [this includes using “Self-Talk” to guide one’s behavior; holding information in mind, manipulating it, organizing it; managing time
- Getting started and finishing
- Analyzing, synthesizing, and summarizing
- Organizing, prioritizing, planning, problem solving
- Inhibiting behavior, shifting one thought or activity to another
- Task monitoring
- Controlling emotions
Today’s challenges in executive skills in middle and high school, if unaddressed, will be tomorrow’s career challenge. When a young adult is unsuccessful in a job, deficits in executive skills are often a contributing factor. Typically the young man or woman has the skills to do the work but lacks the focus, structure, organization and persistence to finish a job in a timely manner.
Executive skills are essential for job success. According to various studies, employers give several reasons why young adults with deficits in executive functions, ADHD, or LD may be fired from their jobs. As you might expect, the boss will be very unhappy when…
- An employee is consistently late to work and meetings.
- Written reports are incomplete.
- The job is not finished in a timely manner.
- Sales productivity goals are not met.
- The employee has difficulty getting started and completing work independently
- Work time is misspent on lower priority, more enjoyable work.
- The employee is disorganized, loses key reports or materials
Strategies to Address Deficits in High Priority Executive Skills
Setting daily reminders that you can see or hear is especially helpful to people who struggle with executive skills, e.g., marking a calendar and reviewing it daily, color coding folders by priority, setting an alarm to designate the time to start an uninterrupted work time.
Strategies to Avoid Frequently Being Late
- Organize all materials needed for work the night before.
- Put all work materials near the door to the garage or exit to the street.
- Set wake-up alarm fifteen minutes earlier.
- Lay out work clothes the night before.
- Calculate commuting time to work during regular work hours and add fifteen to twenty minutes of “oops time” to allow for traffic, stopping to get gas, a delayed bus or subway, etc.
- Set an alarm on a cell phone for ten minutes before time to leave for work.
- Set a second alarm that signals that it’s time to walk out the door.
- If these strategies don’t work: Talk with the doctor if you suspect that you may have sleep problems that make it more difficult for you to fall asleep and wake up.
- Another possibility is to ask the boss for a change in arrival time (and a later time to leave work) to better accommodate the ADHD internal clock.
Strategies for Difficulty Setting Priorities
- Make a list of all task assignments.
- Start on the tasks that are most Important & most Urgent.
- Mark which 2-3 tasks are most important.
- Next identify which important task is the most urgent and the due date.
- Secondarily, identify which task is most important to your boss.
- Post due dates on a calendar that is visible from your desk chair.
- Make a separate list of 2-3 important tasks that must be done today.
- Set aside uninterrupted time to work on the most Important/Urgent task.
- If there is an important task that requires minimal time and effort, complete this task first. Clearing this task will give you a sense of accomplishment and allow you to move on to a more time-consuming task.
Strategies to Avoid Missing Deadlines
- Create a job plan beginning with the project due date and planning backward. Note all dates on a frequently reviewed calendar.
- Consider using project management software for any long-term project. Designate deadlines for each step of the project.
- Use a planner (on the cell phone, computer, or paper). religiously and put warnings of all upcoming deadlines at least a couple days in advance.
- Set alarm reminders of each due date on the phone or computer.
- Break the task into chunks and schedule when each segment should be completed. For example, by the end of tomorrow, collect all data necessary to write the report.
- Find a sympathetic staff member who might be willing to be a mentor, someone to check in with periodically regarding progress and due dates.
Strategies to Avoid Forgetting a Job Assignment or Deadline
- Try the free app “Remember the Milk.” Enter each task, the due date and schedule a reminder email to be sent a day or two before it’s due.
- Add a reminder of all due dates to a project management program, phone, computer, or a month-at-a-glance calendar and review it the first thing every morning.
Strategies to Avoid Procrastination
- End each workday by making a list of the most important work priorities for the next day.
- Begin each day with work on the most important tasks.
- Resist the temptation of taking care of less important and more enjoyable items first.
- If the young adult has difficulty starting a task, set a timer for a short amount of time (fifteen minutes or so) as a reminder to start and suggest he or she do as much as possible within that time frame. Most people with EF challenges will continue working once they have gotten started. This will help them work more efficiently and get him or her over the hump of starting a project.
Strategies for Managing Interruptions
- Set aside a designated time slot to return phone calls and emails. Then mute the cell phone and don’t check any emails or answer texts until all the Important tasks are completed. Emails and texts are huge time gobblers.
- Use a timer on the computer or phone as a reminder to avoid any interruptions during a certain block of time. “Time Timer,” a time management app, makes the passage of time concrete and visual. For example, set the timer for a 45-minute uninterrupted work session. In addition to the visual cue of time winding down, an alarm will sound when time elapses.
- Put a “Please do not disturb” sign on the door.
Strategies for Following and Remembering Verbal Instructions
- After each supervisory session or staff meeting, send a brief email to the supervisor outlining an understanding of the work assignments. This will give the boss an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and also provide a written guideline for the task.
- Write a list of specific responsibilities for each project.
- Don’t start a new task until a list of all the components of the assignment and due dates are entered on a calendar. This will help the young adult focus on the overall project before jumping into a particular task.
Strategies to Avoid Losing things
- Organize and de-clutter the desk; designate places for key reports, works in progress, completed work.
- Place personal items in the same place each day; put car keys in the side pocket of a purse or in a designated bowl or box; hang keys for the work vehicle on the designated office hook.
- Consider using a tracking device for keys, wallet, purse, phone, laptop, and any other easily lost item. There are many available that will sync with the phone or computer and send an audible signal.
- Handle papers once, do what has to be done, and put them away in their designated spot.
- Color-code files—for example, with red designating the most important ones.
- Use open shelves that can be “seen” thus giving a visual reminder of important assignments.
- Avoid storing important documents in unmarked files in drawers and cabinets; unfortunately “out of sight, out of mind.”
Strategies to Avoid Being Easily Distracted
- Ask to work in a quieter area with less traffic, even if it’s a file or storage room.
- For special projects, work in an unused conference room temporarily.
- Use a white noise machine to cover up background noise.
- Occasionally ask to work at home to wrap up a major project.
- Use a noise-cancelling headset.
- Do one task at a time before starting another.
Strategies for Reading and Understanding Large Amounts of Material
- Highlight key points in a written report.
- Discuss key points with a colleague, particularly if the young adult has problems absorbing verbal information.
- Review any diagrams or drawings in the material to clarify points.
- Use text to speech software (with headphones) to read and hear it at the same time.
Strategies to Avoid Forgetting Names and Numbers
- Before going to an important meeting, take a minute to review the names of key people.
- Practice using word associations linking the name to things that are known—e.g., Jeff is also the name of a favorite uncle.
- Keep a list of key phone numbers on a cell phone.
- Make notes of key points before attending an important meeting, including important data. Be informed and prepared.
In summary, if you think the teenager or young adult has deficits in executive skills, start working with them now. Select one or two of the most important executive skill deficits and practice one or two strategies for each. Don’t expect overnight miracles, typically young people will require lots of practice and repetition so that the compensatory strategies become second nature.