For Teachers

Lost, Late, or Burnt Out?

A student with ADHD may start off the school year organized and eager to do her best, but become overwhelmed by her executive function challenges by the end of fall. Here are ways teachers can keep students on task throughout the academic year.

A frustrated student puts her head down and refuses help for executive function disorder.
A frustrated student puts her head down and refuses help for executive function disorder.

Aaron begins freshman year excited and determined to do his best. He is organized, with a new set of binders and dividers. He diligently uses his planner every day. Amira, who is in fifth grade, does the same. They both use their materials pretty well in the first semester, but now that the second semester is in full swing, their efforts fade. Aaron’s planner and notebooks are worn and torn. Amira has lost her planner. Both children look lost, as their mood and energy drop. Their parents and teachers complain: “You’ve been at this for six months now, and you still don’t know what you’re doing?”

For the child who has ADHD and EF challenges, this is difficult to hear. Fortunately, new research on EFs clarifies the causes of “spring fever” in children and suggests strategies that bring relief.

What Are EFs, Anyway?

Executive functioning is “an umbrella term for the mental processes that serve a supervisory role in thinking and behavior. It allows us to create a master plan, initiate it in a timely manner, react to changes and challenges, and keep the goals in mind over time,” according to Joyce Cooper-Kahn, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist who has been in practice for more than 20 years.

Let’s look at some of the reasons children begin to fail as the school year progresses, and see how we can help them correct things before they get out of hand.

Challenge: “The Work Is Tougher!”

We teachers don’t always admit it to students and parents, but the curriculum does get more complex as the year goes on. There is an assumption that basic skills have been covered and that good study habits have been formed.

[Free Checklist: Common Executive Function Challenges — and Solutions]

But for the child with anxiety, attention, or learning disabilities, this may not be the case. He or she might be struggling with gaps in basic skills or experiencing problems with speed of performance. When this gap lowers his performance level, or causes missed deadlines, things get challenging.

Prescription: Fill the Gaps

Parents and teachers should pause at this point, assess what knowledge or skills are missing, and help students acquire them. Here are some questions they should ask:

The how. Is there a basic process to a task or assignment (research project, book report) that is obvious to most students, but not to the individual with EF challenges? All book reports follow a basic template, and research projects entail certain steps. Clarify these processes with your child.

The what. Perhaps the content is hard, involving abstract ideas and their corresponding details. For example, since air, light, and water are essential to “photosynthesis,” these elements must be clearly linked in the student’s mind. If your child can’t make connections between the big picture and its details, the concepts may never crystallize or they may fade quickly. Children with ADHD should revisit such concepts until they’re clear — with the help of a parent or teacher.

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

How accurate or how automatic. A certain level of accuracy is needed to master a skill — it’s usually 90 percent. If a student moves on without gaining that mastery (of reading, math, vocabulary), she will need to relearn or review those skills every time she has to perform related tasks. When mastery is attained, those skills become automatic when you use them over and over again. Solid practice will help. Use flash cards to build or retain math facts or vocabulary words. If reading is the problem, Great Leaps (, an excellent program for building word fluency, could help. Five minutes, three to five days a week, should work for most kids.

Challenge: “I’m Bored!”

The students who need repetition to crystallize new ideas or skills are usually the same ones who crave novelty and change, as most people with ADHD do. Boredom lowers the levels of dopamine in the brain and can impair the ability to attend to detail and perform work.

Prescription: Do Things Differently

If boredom is your child’s problem, change things up. It’s not always possible to find a new teacher or class for your child, but changing the way your child does things can make a difference. Can he or she do homework in a new setting, like the dining room or a library? Or with a partner? Is there a new twist a teacher can add to a repetitive assignment? Is there a new sport your child can try? Learning to change things up is essential for students with ADHD and LD.

Challenge: “Anyone See My Planner?”

Practice makes perfect, but poor practice creates a mess. If your child is struggling, it might be time to check on those good habits that were set at the beginning of the school year. Is he still using his planner, or does it sit at the bottom of his backpack? Does your child still study for small quizzes, or does he obsess about larger tests? Have homework routines been shelved?

Prescription: Get Back to Routines

Establishing or re-establishing good habits and routines — planner use, homework structure, or breaking large assignments into smaller ones — can increase the capacity of working memory and help us manage complexity. Making something a habit or routine allows you to do tasks without having to tap into working memory. Increased working memory enables higher-level thinking and increases performance and speed — we work smarter, not harder!

Challenge: “I’m Burned Out!”

School can wear down students with EF challenges. Imagine having to show up for track practice five days a week, eight hours a day…with a bad ankle. It’s the same feeling for those with learning problems who are in an intense learning situation. To teachers and parents, burnout looks like lethargy, irritability, or work avoidance after a time.

Prescription: Tune up the Brain

Research by Stephen Kaplan, Ph.D., and Marc Berman, Ph.D., suggests that even 20 minutes of exposure to nature “resets” our attention and helps us to refocus. Whether we are gazing out a window or walking in a park, nature gives the right level of brain input, or “soft fascination,” to better access EFs and self-regulation. This effect seems to last well beyond the time spent in nature.

Decide on which one or two of these challenges is most affecting your child. If you’d like to create change, take out a calendar and make a plan to start this week and/or this month. Turn those plans into habits through repetition, and your child will be in better shape in time for the transition to summer.

[Free Test: Could You Have Executive Function Disorder?]