Many individuals with ADHD and/or high-functioning autism have significant executive function deficits. Executive functions include: planning, organization, working memory, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, impulse control, and task initiation. This set of functions is basically everything necessary to function well. When these skills are delayed or deficient, it wreaks havoc on the day-to-day, especially for students.
Executive function deficits are difficult to deal with. ADHD medication can help a little, but certainly not fully. You can’t “change” executive functions, because they are, in part, the way that individual’s brain is, and no medication exists to treat these deficits, much like learning disabilities.
The executive function skills can be improved and the deficits accommodated and supported, however. In kids with developmental delays, like ADHD and autism, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions is still developing into their late 20’s (it’s early 20’s for neurotypical individuals). So, it will naturally improve some on its own. That doesn’t help much when our kids are struggling their way through middle school and high school, and maybe even college. During those years, we have to provide strategies and tools to work around the deficits and weaknesses.
School & Learning Challenges
Let’s look at my son, Ricochet, for example. His executive function deficits are so severe that the psychologist who scored the BRIEF Assessment of Executive Function showed me the scoring graph and pointed out that some of his skills were so minimal that he scored on the very outer edge of the chart. He has some fierce disorganization problems. That means, he doesn’t write down homework assignments, rarely has the materials he needs to do homework, and forgets to turn in what he does do or loses it. Over the past two months, he did at least 5-6 assignments a second time and nearly 20 missing or incomplete assignments in four classes. It was taking over our evenings and weekends, and stressing everyone out. Plus, in actuality, it was punishing Ricochet for having a disability.
For years (yes, YEARS, folks), I’ve been begging his schools to allow him to use technology to accommodate his executive function deficits. I was always told he was too young, or teachers don’t know how to use it, or he needs to “learn” to do things as his peers are expected to. For years we have struggled with this.
When the missing work really became overwhelming this semester, I finally put my foot down. I told the special education staff that we were providing an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for Ricochet to use at school, that it was going to replace his agenda and all paper classwork, notes, and homework, and that I needed their approval. I didn’t ask this time, and I went directly to our county school systems special education department for the approval.
It took a couple days, but the director of special education for our school board approved the request for Ricochet to use the iPad in school, for the rest of his schooling in our county, no matter which school. Yes!
It’s only been a couple weeks, but the improvement it has caused is honestly miraculous. Ricochet uses the iPad for everything at school. The teachers support it because we had an IEP meeting the day after I received word of the approval, so I took the iPad and showed them how he’d use it in their classes. The best part: no more zeros on missing assignments! He’s had a few incomplete assignments to finish, but we knew about them and had the materials — all right in the iPad.
This can work for your struggling student too! Below is an outline of the technology we purchased, apps we installed, and how Ricochet uses them throughout his day — so you can create this amazing system to help your child too! (Yes, these are affiliate links, so I may get a commission if you make a purchase using the links. That doesn’t change the price for you.)
It was crucial that we get an iPad PRO so that he could use it like pencil and paper, since the PRO is the only iPad the Apple Pencil works with. We purchased the 9.7″, but my daughter has the 12.9″ because she uses it for digital art — we felt the 12.9″ was too big to manage on tiny school desks. We also purchased the LifeProof case, to keep the screen from shattering if dropped. It’s super expensive, but less than the cost of replacing the screen one time — we have them on all our iPhones, iPods, and iPads. We also switched from a big binder to a small laptop case for him to carry to classes, and he likes it so much better.
I did some research to find a way to accomplish everything he needs at school in as few apps as possible. I was able to get it down to just two: UPAD3 and iStudiez.
UPAD allows him to take notes and take a picture of a worksheet and then complete it by writing on it like pencil and paper or by typing. It has a great folder system so you can set up a folder for each class and even create secondary, nested folders to categorize further (like classwork and homework folders for each class folder).
iStudiez is the favorite planner/agenda app for students in middle school, high school, and college, and it’s pretty robust. You can input your schedule, instructors, and assignments, and cue reminders and alerts for assignments. Ricochet loves that he can check off assignments in the app when he has completed them too (gives him a sense of accomplishment and finality).
Check out some screenshots of Ricochet’s work in these apps.
I have a couple screenshots of an actual document open in UPAD3, but my website has decided not to cooperate at the moment. I will come back and add those as soon as I can get them uploaded.
Could this set-up for school help your special learner?
Author: Penny Williams
Penny Williams guides and mentors parents raising kids with ADHD and/or autism. She’s the parent of a son with ADHD and autism, and the author of three award-winning books on parenting kids with ADHD: Boy Without Instructions, What to Expect When Parenting Children with ADHD, and The Insider’s Guide to ADHD Penny is the current editor of ParentingADHDandAutism.com, Founder and Instructor for The Parenting ADHD & Autism Academy, and a frequent contributor on parenting and children with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications.