Supporting Executive Functioning With Visual Symbols

This morning I needed my daughter to get ready to go out. I also needed to wrap up some work before we went, therefore I needed her to do get ready independently. I gave her a list of things she needed to do to get ready, but I knew the list was too long for her to manage. She wasn’t going to remember the list, or the order in which she was able to do it. She hasn’t yet developed the skills that allow her brain to just know, by itself, what to do. And she hasn’t yet developed the skills to remember the list I had given her (to be fair, it was a pretty long list). Finally, she hasn’t yet developed the skills to know the most sensible order in which to do things. These are all executive functioning skills that she is gradually developing, and it is my job to support her with this.

Now, just to be clear, my daughter is already very capable of completing each individual step independently. She can get dressed, clean her teeth, put suncream on and get her shoes on. It’s not the tasks themselves that she struggles with, it’s the organisation of these steps.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had all the time in the world to stand in her room and give her each instruction, one at a time, as she is ready for it? This would still require her to process spoken language, but at least she wouldn’t have to remember the list, and work out the order. As a working Mum, however, I sadly don’t always have that time. I need to focus on wrapping up my work so that I can give my children my full attention once we are out the door.

So, I do the best thing I can, and support the development of her executive functioning skills by supplementing what she can already do with visuals. This morning, I took what I needed her to do and I communicated it to her in a simple, clear way that could allow her to both get ready independently this morning, plus help develop her executive functioning skills for the future. 

Why do I use visuals to support her with this? I’m glad you asked!

To help her process the information in each step. I mentioned processing above. I could show her the list in words, which will of course depend on her ability to read. Or, I could show her the to do list in words and pictures. She’s more familiar with pictures than words – she’s been looking at picture books since she was a tiny baby. (We start by reading picture books, right?) Combine these with words and I’ve given her double the opportunity to find out what I am asking of her.

Furthermore, the pictures and words don’t disappear. If I did just stand in her room and tell her what she needs to do, she is likely to ask me for a reminder because the words I have spoken have gone. They have disappeared. The written words and pictures aren’t going anywhere. She can keep looking back for that reminder.

The words and pictures show the order in which she needs to do things. I display them one after the other, like a list, so there is no doubt in the order. A big part of executive functioning skills is the ability to plan. By showing her, I’m giving her practise in planning the most straight forward order for her to achieve.

She can remove the tasks that she has completed. As each task is done, she can remove the picture so that it is no longer there to distract her. The top of the list is always the next thing she needs to do. Plus, she gets the satisfaction of pulling a picture off the list because that task is done! The visuals are helping her work through a sequence. 

I’ve provided a checklist. As with everything, when we are learning we like to double check we’ve got it right. As my daughter becomes more independent in her organisational skills, she will start to depend on her visuals less. However, they are still there providing a checklist so that she can keep checking back, perhaps once she things she has done everything, just to be extra sure that everything is done. 

This might sound like a lot, but actually it was just a list of 8 visuals. They just provided a LOT of support. They helped her in the short term, but they also helped to build her executive functioning skills for the long term. As a child develops their executive functioning skills, they are then able to use these to self regulate - that is, they are able to use these skills to control their behaviour.

If you’d like to support your child’s executive functioning skill using visuals, check out our ‘Encourage Independence’ section on our website.

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