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Building Executive Functioning Skills in Neurodivergent Children

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
10/04/23  12:30 PM PST
techniques to help children with ADHD study in school and at home. Image of middle-school-age girl with head on her books, staring listlessly into the distance.

As parents, we want to give our children the tools so they can be successful. Unfortunately, when our children enter into late elementary school or middle school, there’s no class available that teaches them how to organize their many materials and plan ahead for their assignments, projects and tests.  When my son and daughter started middle school, they were overwhelmed with how many responsibilities their teachers now expected of them. They weren’t prepared to handle the demands of each class with a different teacher, a locker, so many notebooks to carry, and the weekly array of quizzes, tests, journals and so on.  Throw in a couple of years of remote learning, and some of our kids really lost out on the building of these skills during that time.

For our children and adolescents with ADHD, it’s okay if we need to coach and mentor with a more hands-on approach. For many parents, they continue to coach their young adult children while in college, and that’s okay.  Keep in mind that each of our children’s journey is going to be unique. The goal is to make progress without the pressure (on you and/or your child) to achieve X goal by X age. That will only serve to frustrate the both of you. Here are three tips for building executive functioning skills in neurodivergent children.

Add Color

Our children with ADHD tend to have a visual spatial learning style. What does this mean? At a very basic level, this means that they think in pictures and video, and not as much in words. Our children understand concepts in how they work and come together dynamically, not just based on the words on a worksheet or in a textbook. With that said, color coding notebooks and materials by subject is a great way to organize materials.

When working with students, I ask them to identify the color they associate with each of their subjects. For example, Math = red, Spanish = blue etc. Any and all materials related to that subject should be that color – down to the spiral notebook, folder, binder and pencil case holder. Anything related to Math is now red. Red = Math.

Why is this helpful? When your child is looking in her locker, in her backpack, or around her bedroom for her math notebook, she is not looking for the letters,  “M-A-T-H.”  Instead, she is looking for the color red. Given a visual spatial learner has to direct their attention to the words, processing of the color is more within their natural proclivity.  Thereby, finding the math notebook may come with greater ease when she is scanning her room for the color red.

Project and Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is not an easy task when you are living in the moment. Our kids want to prepare for their upcoming test right before it’s time to take it. They want to get an assignment started and finished all at once. Yet, we know that as our children get older, the need for time management and planning ahead is essential because their assignments become more complex and they come with more parts.

Keep it visual by placing a white board calendar in your child’s room. Once your subjects are color coded, write the upcoming test, quiz, paper or project in that color on the white board.

Don’t like a whiteboard? No problem, try an old school desk calendar (the large one). You can set it up on the wall or place on a desk and use it in the same way. Color code subjects as well as extracurricular activities and social plans.  When you child is looking at the week ahead, they will be able to process in terms of color and associated subject.

Break It Down

You and I both know that studying for long periods of time does not guarantee that our children are going to remember the information. In fact, sitting for any extended period of time almost ensures that they are going to be frustrated and learn close to nothing.

For myself, as an adult, and for my own children, I like breaking it down. That is, for a homework assignment, create smaller assignments and get each chunk done. For example, if there are 30 math problems to complete, set a timer for 10-15 minutes and work on 10 problems at a time.

If your child is studying for a test, break down the content into sub-topics and review a chunk of information each night over multiple nights. This will further provide repetition and improve consolidation of this information, making it more likely for it to be transferred into long-term memory.

Let’s say that your child has a test on Friday.  Ask your child to assess how many days of studying will be needed given the number of sub-topics on the upcoming test or quiz. If she says two days, then write “Math – Study” on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the test on Friday using a red marker. Not only is the amount of information smaller but the amount of time spent studying is also shorter.


Building executive functioning skills is a necessity for managing life as a middle school, high school or college student. The amount of responsibilities continues to grow and our ability to hold that information in memory will no longer work for us. This is when strategies and techniques come in to play that help us build the skill to get things done without too much distress or worry.


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