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Here's what to do if your child can't focus or follow directions

Child day dreaming.

In this article you will find answers to questions like:

1. What is executive function disorder?
2. What should I watch for?
3. How can I help my child?

As young children develop as they grow, it's normal to have trouble following directions or regulating their emotions.

However, if the difficulties continue and disrupt the ability to be successful at school and home, it may indicate an issue is affecting your child’s executive function development.

Possibilities could be depression, autism, a traumatic brain injury or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD.


If your child is always disorganized, emotional or drifting off into space, it may be an executive functioning issue.

Executive function is a “broad group of mental skills that enable people to complete tasks and interact with others,” according to Medical News Today.

Symptoms include:

  • Trouble controlling emotions or impulses
  • Problems with starting, organizing, planning or completing tasks
  • Problems listening or paying attention
  • Socially inappropriate behavior
  • Difficulty solving problems

If you notice a pattern of emotional outbursts or behaviors to school-related tasks, such as screaming, crying or ignoring tasks, you can request a parent-teacher conference, says Joan Clark, program planner for Exceptional Student Education at the Palm Beach County School District. That could result in a school-based team identifying areas needing attention, which can lead to a referral for testing if a disability is suspected.

“If children are not able to self-regulate, it may not be just ADHD,” Clark says. “Babies learn how to self-soothe. They learn to wait, based on a pattern of their caretaker’s responses to their cries and coos, but some children are not neurologically wired in that way.

“Some children with executive function issues are not able to inhibit impulses. Others, when it comes to assignments, don’t know where to start, so they appear to be lackadaisical. They don’t know how to manage their time wisely with long-term projects. If you ask them to get ready for school, they might show up with one shoe on and their backpack half-filled, but in their minds they are ready.”


If a child has trouble with impulsive outbursts, a technique called zones of regulation can be taught to recognize triggers and learn how to cope. For example, blue zone means “I’m bored,” green means “I’m ready to go,” yellow means “Something is brewing,” and red means “I’m reacting.”

“Before they get to red, they are taught calming exercises to get them back to blue or green,” Clark says. “In the classroom, there are safe zones where they can physically go for their red zone moments. All of this empowers them to take control.”

For disorganized students, Clark suggests using a visual schedule, which shows them how they should look when they are prepared, such as a visual display of what needs to be in their backpack or a picture of them fully dressed. Time-task calendars that operate like a meeting agenda can break down an assignment into manageable chunks.

“For parents, it’s important to remember there are no stupid questions when it comes to helping their child and to keep communication lines with the teacher open,” Clark says.


• Joan Clark, program planner of Exceptional Student Education, Palm Beach County School District 
Medical News Today 

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