Seven Tools that Increased My Children’s Executive Functioning and Independence
“Pick up your clothes,” “Put your dishes in the sink,” “Did you finish your homework?” and “Did you brush your teeth?”… Who said having older kids is easier? I remember celebrating not pumping breast milk anymore and graduating my kids out of diapers, but having older kids brings its own challenges. Yes, they become more independent and should be able to brush their own teeth, get themselves dressed, and help out around the house; however, the reality is that in some families, this also takes a lot of work. In order to get these things done, kids need to understand what is expected of them, be able to initiate tasks, transition from one activity to the next, stay focused for completion, and be motivated to do well in school and contribute to the household. In my family this often requires support (as needed), reminding (most of the time), repeating the reminder (often), monitoring (usually), and going a bit nutty when I feel like I have become the household nagger — not a job that I signed up for! As a therapist, I know that children have different abilities, developmental levels, and executive functioning skills that develop over time and should be considered when encouraging kids to help with chores and become more independent. I also know that there are many strategies that can be put into place to help kids start and complete chores and duties that they might not necessarily want to perform.
In order to resign from the role of nagger and reduce the pleas and reminders, I’d like to share with other parents/caregivers some of the tools and strategies I’ve put in place that have helped our household:
1. Family Meetings – After reading Positive Discipline (PD) by Jane Nelson and getting support from a local PD-trained professional, Marcile Smith Boyle, (http://workingparenting.com) our family implemented family meetings. This has been very helpful for problem solving, providing supportive feedback and compliments, and reviewing the week to come. At family meetings, we often discuss how the team can run more smoothly and what we could do to support each other more. Every week we review the coming week’s schedule and develop a meal plan. We have even incorporated a day called “hump day helper” (Wed), when one of my boys picks the menu and helps with the prep. This creates more buy-in and support with meal prep. As part of the meeting, the person in charge of running it (this rotates) gets to pick something for the family to do together for “family fun time.”
2. Weekly Planner – In the kitchen, we’ve posted a weekly planner. We used to have a paper planner, but I recently discovered an amazing company called Easy Daysies which develops dry erase and visual planners that use magnets to display the schedules for home and school. At our family meeting, we review and write down everyone’s schedule for the week. Some of the events stay the same week to week (e.g., baseball practice) and some might change (e.g., baseball games or mom out late for a work event). This planner gives everyone in the family a place to check to see how the day, evening, or weekend will look like. It helps family members to plan ahead and get things done in order to have time for the events on the planner. This has proven to be a wonderful support for everyone’s executive functioning.
3. Visual Schedules – Research shows that children as young as pre-K benefit from a visual routine. Take photos, draw, or write out what is expected for the various routines in your child’s life. Detailed schedules showing the steps needed for tasks like brushing teeth can be helpful, and more complex activities such as getting ready for school can be mapped out step-by-step to help your child become more independent and successful. EasyDaysies has a magnet schedule that can be used for various activities, and I have also provided examples in my book, Make Social Learning Stick! (pp. 75 and 82). Photos, clip art, or words can be used for kids to follow. In our house, we have visual schedules in the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen to help my boys so that I don’t have to constantly remind them of what to do.
4. Visual Tactile Systems – Another helpful tool that I use to get daily chores and homework done is a visual and tactile system using clothespins with the various duties printed on them pinned to a piece of foam that shows a “to do” side (left) and a “done” side (right). At the beginning of each day, the adult in charge sets up the foam board with the clothespins on the “to do” side that need to be completed that day. When the boys complete each task (e.g., “Take Jack for a walk” or “Recycle out”), they move the clothespin to the other side that says, “done.” This allows them to: a) know what is expected of them that day, b) have some tactile feedback when the chore is completed, and c) enjoy the visual satisfaction of seeing all that they have done that day without a parent nagging them. This system also helps the adults involved to know what has and has not been completed. In our household there are multiple people involved, and the visual prompt is helpful for showing what still needs to be done prior to “free time.”
5. Match the Picture – Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen (www.cognitiveconnectionstherapy.com) are speech pathologists and executive function experts who have developed strategies that have changed the way that I parent my kids and provide therapy to my clients. One of my favorites is “Match the Picture.” This is a super simple and very helpful tool to help kids (and adults) know what is expected of them and have the end in mind. Just take a photo of an outcome you want to see, and post it near the area of the chore or activity. Or, you can show your child the photo prior to he/she performing the task. For example, we have photos of what a bed should look like after it is made next to each boy’s bed. We also have a photo of how their desks typically should look. Easy Dasyies also provides stickers of visuals to show where the various clothes, toys, and supplies belong in a child’s room or house to help with organization. Matching the picture can be used for homework or school projects as well. Before starting a project, look online or ask the teacher to show your child an example of what is expected or what the end result should look like (e.g., a science project).
6. Indirect Verbal Prompting – Instead of using a direct verbal prompt and telling your child exactly what to do (e.g., “Pick up the towel and put it on the towel rack” or “Did you feed the dog yet and give him some water?”), try using indirect verbal prompts (e.g., “Hmm, I see a towel on the floor” or “Jack looks hungry.”) This allows the child to use internal self-talk to determine what should be done with the towel or that the dog needs to be fed and helps the child develop stronger executive functioning skills and overall independence. This doesn’t come across as yelling at your child and telling them what to do. If your child is able to perform most chores on his/her own and knows what is expected, you can even make statements such as, “We need to leave the house in 30 minutes; what needs to happen in order for us to be ready to leave?” To provide a bit more support, tell your child, “Let me know if there is anything you need help with to make that happen.” Don’t forget to be careful about your tone of voice and facial expressions. Children (and people in general) are sensitive to tone and expression, and the use of affect can make or break an interaction between adults and children.
7. First X, then Y – When children struggle with motivation to complete daily chores, homework, or non-preferred activities, it can help to provide something that is motivating to the child that can come after the non-preferred task is completed. Sometimes these are called rewards or reinforces. Just say, “First get your homework done, then we can play basketball outside” or “First pick up your room, then we can play a board game.” It also helps to explain the benefits of getting the activity done and why it is important. For example, if you explain that by making the bed, the child will have the sheets and comforter cozy and ready to get into later tonight, your child might be more motivated to complete the chore.
When kids take responsibility for chores, this not only improves overall family functioning, but also builds a child’s independence, skills, and ability to plan and follow through on tasks — all important for building executive functioning skills. As kids become part of the conversation about family chores, they start to understand that a family is a team in which people rely on one another and work together — all important for social communication. Although it takes effort to implement strategies that give kids greater independence with chores and other household/school responsibilities, these strategies ultimately reduce everyone’s stress levels, increase cooperation, and take parents out of the role of “Nagger-in-Chief”!
Please chime in and share other ways that you have developed systems or tools to support your children and family team-building. One of my best tools is gathering information from other caregivers and getting feedback about what has worked and not worked for their families. I’m hoping this blog will be a place for sharing and learning from one another.
Here is a link that provides information on age-appropriate household chores: https://www.makesociallearningstick.com/free-downloads-2