Episode 110: Facing the Challenge of Advocating for Executive Functioning Supports
By Rachel Starr
October 17, 2022
0:00 / 25:20
Ashley Barlow00:01

Hi everyone. Welcome to the Ashley Barlow Company podcast. I'm Ashley Barlow, your host. If you are a parent, a teacher, or someone who works at a school or you're a community member, a volunteer, or a staff member at an organization that supports people with special education plans, a coach, a tutor, or even a grandparent, you're in the right place.

Sit back with an ice cold glass of lemonade. Put on your walking shoes and grab some, He. Roll down the windows and crew. Ready, set, go. Educate, advocate, collaborate.

Welcome back to another episode of Special Education Advocacy with Ashley Barlow. I'm Ashley Barlow, and I'm so happy you're here. Okay. Today we are going to talk about something that I've been kind of geeking out about in a lot of meetings for my clients, and I was talking to another advocate a few weeks ago.

About a conference that I'm going to be presenting at here in Kentucky. And she said, What are you, this is a conference that's specific for people with adhd. And she said, What are you seeing the most? And I was like, Executive functioning. And so we started talking about, you know, kind of what I was seeing and what kind of troubles I was having advocating for clients and.

And what it really came down to for me was provoking empathy in your advocacy. And so I'm actually gonna speak on that topic in Lexington, Kentucky in November November of 2022. If you are listening to this later and so I, I haven't prepared that presentation, but what I thought I would do is just jot down some notes from the discussion that I had with her.

This woman's name is Tyler Dorsey and she works at the Focus Forward Clinic in Lexington, and it serves children specifically with adhd. And so I thought, you know what? I've been having this discussion so much and I know I'm preaching to the choir. I really wanna give you some strategies for advocating for your child when their executive functioning is getting in the way of their success.

And so let's start by talking about the eight. Main executive functions. Now we did talk about executive functioning. I think it was back in episode 35. I meant to double check my notes cuz sometimes my notes are wrong and my computer, but my computer says it was exec, that it was episode 35. And you guys really liked that episode.

So that also tells me that we probably have a lot of people out there that are struggling with advocacy for their children. in the realm of executive functioning specifically. Okay. So it depends on where you look at lists and what experts you talk to and how you combine the executive functions together and whatnot.

The list that I have has eight main executive functions. I've seen other lists with 11. I've seen seven. I don't think there's any one specific list that is like the best, right. But basically what we're talking about when we're talking about executive functions is we're talking about how the brain works to kind of organize and prioritize and get tasks started and finished.

So it kind of like how we Our stuff done, which obviously impacts your ability to function at school, right? So the first one is emotional control. The ability to modulate our feelings, to deal with our feelings, to regulate, our feelings, to rationalize, et cetera. The next one in my list is inhibition.

The ability to control our thoughts and to control our actions to kind of. Stop and think that impulse control. Then the next one is working memory, and working memory is our short term memory, but it really encomp. It encompasses our visual memory, visual memory manipulation, auditory memory, spatial memory, those things, so kind of our spacial awareness.

and our working memory ability to kind of hold things quickly and then to do something with them. Initiation is the ability to start a task. So the ability to like kind of just get started on something. The fifth executive function is planning and reprioritization. So this is the ability to.

Plan out a task, like a multi-step task, and then to prioritize what you're gonna do first, how you're gonna lay it out in order to get something done. So how we're gonna do all of these different operations in order to get one particular task accomplished. Then shift is kind of your ability to go with the flow, so to speak.

Your ability to adjust. And then number seven is organization. So your ability to stay organized, to organize yourself and your Your materials and your thoughts and that sort of thing. And when we think about that academically, we're thinking about our ability to organize things, to say them, our ability to organize things, to write them, our ability to organize things, to process them.

So like, you know, when we think about academics, we really are kind of thinking about things from lots of different perspectives, right? And then eight is self-monitoring. So your ability to assess your own. Performance. Okay. So like I said, we talk about the executive functions more in detail in a prior episode, but those are the eight that I have in my list.

So emotional control, inhibition, working memory initiation, planning and prioritization, shift organization and self monitoring. Now one thing that I will tell you that I think is interesting about executive functioning, and I think it's interesting because it's my story, it's true to me. I used to tell people I am like a walking executive function.

I am really good at planning things. I'm really good at prioritizing things. I am really good at being organized and staying organized, et cetera. Well, you know why? Because those are all deficits for me. And so I work very hard to do them because if I wasn't organized and if I couldn't plan things and I couldn't prioritize things, I would completely spiral.

So the more I learn about helping my clients and helping my own kids, the more I'm like, Oh, I understand. No wonder I'm so good at that. It's because my body has worked really hard to compensate and in fact, probably overcompensate for. These deficits that I have. And I think that's very important to know as a human.

And probably some of you are driving in your cars or taking your walk or folding your laundry, saying, Yeah, me too. Because whenever I say that to clients, they're like, And me too. I struggle with this as well. So you. How do we talk about executive functioning in school? That's what I wanna talk about today.

How do we talk about this when we advocate for our kids or our clients at school? And I think the biggest thing is to separate the child. From the behavior to separate the child from the executive function. So this is really easy when we're talking about behaviors, right? Like one of the first things that they teach you in your behavior management class in college is that we categorize the, the behavior, not the child.

So we don't say you're bad, we say, And nowadays, I mean, when I was in college, we probably said that behavior is bad. So you know, I don't know, throwing a pencil across the room is bad. Now we probably say that wasn't a super smart choice because we don't even wanna say bad, right? But we're focusing on the behavior, not the child.

So we don't tell children that they are bad or that they you know, that, that, that the human. Is associated with that behavior. And I think it's a little bit weirder and it feels woner to do that with executive functioning, but it is so super important to do that in our advocacy. And so the first thing that I say all the time is, you know, this isn't Johnny right?

You know that this isn't their soul. This is not the human. In fact, the child, Johnny doesn't want to struggle with these things. It is not Johnny. It is Johnny's executive functioning. And so I assure you that he is as frustrated as you. I promise you that. So we're separating out the child with the behaviors we're talking about how executive functioning impacts your learning.

That doesn't have to do anything with the child. So a lot of times, friends, this presents with a a teenage boy who looks like he doesn't give two craps about anything. Lots of times we're talking about kids with their hoods up and their heads on their desk and one eyebrow cocked and maybe like some nasty language.

Maybe they might like put a shoulder in front of a teacher, like they're gonna brush past the teacher. Maybe they just like get up and walk outta class and act like they don't care about something. Lots of times, I mean, I see this a. And maybe we're talking about a child with a moderate or more significant disability, you know, something that impacts their profile more comprehensively.

So maybe we're talking about a child with autism, or we're talking a child about a child with an intellectual disability. And so, you know, the, the teachers wanna say, Well, they're just not getting. Well, maybe they are getting it, but we need to organize and organize it differently. Maybe they could get it, but they're having a hard time with the actual planning.

And the prioritization of the project. Maybe they understand it, but they can't communicate how they understand it. And so really kind of advocating for the child is figuring out which executive function is getting in the way and then communicating. To the school staff. So remember the first key to me is separating out the child and the behavior or the executive function.

Okay, so how do we communicate this? I think the key in communicating is empathy. Empathy, empathy, empathy, empathy. And this is hard because it's so frustrating, especially if you think that the school should know it. It is so frustrating if you're like, Oh my gosh. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this is the problem.

It's frustrating. And so take a deep breath back up, widen your lens, and sit in the, in the position of the teacher. Because when this happens, when you know something that the school staff doesn't know, you get this really unique opportunity to teach. And you aren't going to be able to teach them if you are completely frustrated.

So kind of view this as an opportunity to teach them about your child's executive functioning. So then that might involve some education for yourself, right? Like you might need to talk to experts, you might need to read some books, You might need to listen to a few more podcasts so that you can.

Communicate yourself. But I think the key here is telling little stories about what you see at home and in the community. Telling stories about what strategies have worked at home, telling stories about how you have communicated with your child, what your child has said. About their executive functioning.

I think this provides a really good opportunity to kind of open the, the door to your home and to your community and give the school staff a glimpse at what you are seeing. Right? And if you're approaching this from the teacher's perspective, I think it's important to. Show this to the parents because they might really have the opportunity then to look into executive functioning and to provide some more comprehensive supports at home and in the c.

So you know, maybe what we're doing is we're explaining what experts say, or maybe we're explaining what the books say. Maybe we're explaining what the child, him or herself says. But regardless of what we're communicating, we're trying to provoke empathy. We're trying to say, Yes, I see this and this is the way it looks at home.

Or if you're the teacher, this is the way it looks at school, and this is what I've done to support the child. And this is how the child has communicated about it, or this is what, where we are in that process. This is how I know it's executive functioning and this is how we're making progress. Okay. So a key to this then is also providing real concrete suggestions, right?

Because it would be kind of have silly advocacy to be like, Oh, well that's PR, planning and prioritization. And then not to put your heads together with the entire i e team to say, Okay, what can we do about. Right, And don't forget that it's okay to ask questions because maybe you don't really understand what's happening at school.

Maybe you don't have a real good glimpse at what's happening at school, so you can ask a bunch of questions and say, I would love to brainstorm because I've been working with our OT and our psychologist and our pediatrician on this for three years, and I really think we're starting to make some progress.

So I'm gonna ask a couple questions so that I can really understand what is happening at school. Wow, that could be super duper hopeful. So let me give you a couple of examples and these are examples that have either happened in my life or with some of my. Okay, so maybe it's shift, like the ability to go with the flow.

So I know a person her name is Ashley Barlow, who does not like change. And this is not even embarrassing to admit because it's my executive functioning. I can do something about it. But step one, I've gotta understand that this is the way my brain works. So when Brandon and I first started dating our first year that we were living in the.

City. We were long distance for my last year of college, and then I moved to Louisville, Kentucky. And Louis Louisville is a great place to eat out. There are wonderful restaurants in Louisville. And so we made this goal that we were not gonna repeat the same restaurant twice. And so, I mean, imagine those days when you know, before you heard kids so.

We were going to go to a different restaurant every weekend. And so, you know, maybe by Tuesday or Wednesday we were talking about where we were, where we were going to go on Friday night. And if I went to, if, you know, we both went our separate ways on a Friday morning and we met back up at five o'clock and Brandon would say, You know what?

I'm not really feeling Italian. Why don't we go to this I don't know, Mexican place. Oh my gosh. I would get upset, I would say. I don't . I thought we were going to Italian. My tasters were set on Italian. I went Italian. I went Italian, and I would literally cry. I couldn't communicate about it. I couldn't function.

I would cry. I wouldn't really even get upset. I just couldn't process. The change go with the flow is not in my lexicon. The other thing is Brandon used to say you know, I would say, Well, what are we gonna do on Saturday? And I would have a little post-it night with a list of things I wanted to accomplish on Saturday.

And Brandon used to say, Play, let's play it by ear. And I would say, I hate play it by ear . And it was like a conversation that you could plan. Let's play it by ear. And then I would say, I hate play it by ear. I'm not good at going with the flow. A funny thing is one of my friends one time asked me if I napped and I was like, Oh, I'm a terrible napper.

I can never fall asleep, and if I do on a random weekend, then I can't wake back up. I'm groggy all day. And she said, Well, maybe if you put it on your to-do list, because I'm just famous for having a to-do list. So the ability to go with the flow. So if you have a child that is having a hard time going with the flow, you might say literally, if we plan on Friday night pizza and then we get invited to go bowling and so we're gonna have tacos at the bowling alley, they'll cry.

You are explaining that this is something that isn't just happening at school. This is something that you have struggled with for the. Six years or for, for the child's entire life, you might say, you know, literally when he was two years old, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You're trying to get the team to know the child better.

And here's a big thing with shift. Shift comes with the anxiety, associated with the change. And so if we address the anxiety, We might get some success. So maybe we need extra time. Maybe we just need an acknowledgement of the feelings that are associated with the change. Like, Oh, I know you were set on Italian and I know that this is a change.

And so you might need some time to kind of process what it's gonna look like to go to the bowling alley, or you might need some time to process what what the schedule looks like because we. Late start or early dismissal, or the pep rally during fourth period, or the P S A T or whatever. We're acknowledging it, we're providing extra time and you know, depending on the child's profile, we might actually need some, some specially designed instruction in how plans actually change.

We might need some, you know, some lessons on it's okay for things to change. There are visuals. That I, that I've seen really work well. So if a child has a visual schedule, there might be like a yellow box where we can just put it down and say change. And that way they know, Oh, a change is happening. A change from my normal routine is happening.

And now here are the strategies that I use for. A change. Right? And of course, we have to make sure that the team acknowledges the child's success when they are able to go with the. . Okay. So that's an example for a shift. Maybe we're looking at self monitoring. A lot of my clients that have high functioning autism have a I call it a weird sense of justice.

You know, they're the kids that lose in the, in the first grade Halloween party, they lose the, I don't know, dress. Dress your classmate like a mummy with toilet paper competition. Their toilet paper unrolled slower or something, and they go berserk because they lost that competition, right? This weird sense of justice.

Who cares? It's toilet paper, it's Halloween, it's first grade. Nobody else cares, but they go berserk. Or maybe it's an academic task, like an inability to know how well you did on something. Oh my gosh, I did great on this writing. Well, maybe the writing activity was that stereotypical five sentence paragraph, right?

So opening sentence three, Supporting details, closing sentence. Well, their thing was only two sentences long. So without even knowing if it has an opening three sentences and a conclusion, we know it only has two sentences. So we know we're only gonna get two out of five. If those two sentences have what they're supposed to have.

But this child just thinks that they did great because they don't have an objective way to monitor themselves. So what can we do for self-monitoring? Well, we can tell stories about what self-monitoring looks like at home. And in the community, and we can talk about what success looks like. So we can talk about, you know, what we've started to do at home is we've really started to teach emotions.

We've worked on interception and that's really helped with that weird sense of justice. So we've used zones of regulation or. You know, some book or some program or something that we've downloaded from teachers, pay teachers, and so that's helping us to understand our emotions. That's helping us to understand when we're red or yellow or, or green or blue.

Or for the writing thing, You know, this is how we use graphic organizers when we do our homework. And this, and, and so basically what these are doing with self-monitoring is these strategies are giving us a way to assess ourself in an objective way. So if we have kind of a checklist, then we can go back and be like, Okay, how did I do through that?

So basically what you do is you set goals and then you assess them, right? And so, We're kind of looking at what we're trying to do and then how we did it. Okay. One last example. Maybe the executive function is planning and prioritization. You know, maybe the child's really struggling with that. So the example that I always use on this one is tell the teacher how your kid cleans their room.

Can you say, Go up and clean your room, and, and 45 minutes later they come down and it's sparkling like the Mr. Clean. No. Do you have to say, Okay, go up and get all of the glasses and plates out of your room. Okay. Next, what we're gonna do is we're gonna get all the laundry and we're gonna put it in your hamper, and then we're gonna take your hamper down to the laundry room, okay?

Next, we're gonna, you know, strip your bed and put on new sheets and and make your bed. So what we're doing is we are creating that plan for them. We're giving them a checklist or you know, some kind of of reminder, right? And so we can explain that in school and then we can provide strategies, we can ask exactly what the issues are and we can suggest apps or lists or timers or you know, some other map to success.

Lots of times with planning and prioritization, it's time management. Kids think that they've got, you know, hours and hours and hours to do something or weeks to do something, and then it just creeps up on them. So maybe we need to work on time management. Maybe we need to utilize some strategies to keep us somewhat distracted so that we can actually perform the task.

Lots of kids that have trouble with executive functioning do well when they are slightly distracted, so maybe we need like a book on tape or some music or something like that in order to keep us going. Okay, so the key. To advocating in this realm of executive functioning is to get empathy. So you explain, you connect with the people on the IEP team, and you provide strategies to help support the child.

This, I think is the key to helping a child that is struggling with executive functioning. And then don't forget to talk about how you've talked to your child. Don't forget to bring the child and the child's emotions back in. Their child doesn't want to be annoying. They don't want to be emotional. They don't want to be the center of attention.

They don't want that. It annoys them too. It's not them. It is their executive functioning. I hope that helps you. I will see you next week, same time, same place.