Let’s say you have one of those 14 year old boys who shows signs of what is now commonly being referred to as “executive function deficits,” or EFD.
You probably know some of the signs of EFD – poorly organized, poor planning, little task initiation, weak follow-through, and a lack of sustained mental effort, among other things.
Or as I like to explain to parents, “He’s got a floppy rudder – there’s little steering his boat.”
Parents, rightfully, struggle with their role relative to these kids, especially when they are moving into the middle and high school years when the stakes become more serious.
Let’s take George, a 14 year old young man who recently had a project that would probably take about 10 hours total from beginning to end in order to adequately complete.
Recounting how he managed the project, George explained (vaguely) how he spent his time starting with the weekend, going through to the time it was due on Wednesday. As George stumbled through the retelling, his mom was sitting close by to offer a counterbalance to George’s telling.
“Well, I worked a little over the weekend,” George started. (To my ears I translated that to mean George probably spent about 12 minutes on the project.)
“Come on, George,” his mom chimed in. “You were on Xbox literally all weekend. Maybe you put 15 minutes into the project on the weekend. It was not until Monday night that you put in about an hour before going back on Xbox while I ran around going to the store to get the materials you needed.”
(George shrugged and didn’t offer much defense.)
I sit up somewhat incredulous, “So, wait. Let me guess. Come Tuesday night, you still had about 80% left and I bet your mom’s head was exploding. Is that right?”
(Mom nods vigorously while George continues shrugging.)
I turn to the mom. “Look, you’re not the lead actor in this play. George is in the lead. It’s George’s show. Your role is to be a supporting actor – you play a supporting role. As a supporting actor you can help structure it for him. That’s about it.”
One of the things that the George types don’t know how to do (and they legitimately don’t have a clue), is how to break larger tasks down into smaller parts and put them in a task sequence that leads from beginning to end.
I have found the boys, especially the middle to high school boys, to be particularly bad at this skill of planning and task sequencing.
I suggest, “George, how about we play it back for a couple of minutes and let’s make believe you are about to start the project. With your mom, let’s go through every step involved and make a list.”
They do that together in front of me and with a bit of prompting George comes up with about 10 steps – some small (make sure there’s paper in the printer) and some large (go to Staples and get project material).
George almost looks stunned as he sees how many steps are involved.
“George, I get it,” I say. “Planning doesn’t come naturally to you and breaking tasks down is not something you do on your own. How about going forward with your mom as a “supporting actor” for you she will help you break it down to make a task list, but it’s your show. She will be about 10% or so involved.”
George shows the slightest sign that such an approach may be helpful while giving me one more shrug while mom looked like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Moms. Repeat after me, “I am not the lead actor…I play a supporting role…it’s his show. I’m not the lead actor.”
Say it as a mantra over and over.