Firming Up the Rudder

May 17, 2019

We recently wrote a post on “executive functioning.” (Previous Post on Executive Functioning)

As I have noted, I like to think of executive functioning as the rudder to a ship.  It’s the steering mechanism that helps you do stuff, like start tasks, finish tasks, stay-on-track, those sorts of things.

Some kids (adults, too) have pretty decent executive function traits, others do not.  It usually shakes out in a 65-35 % ratio based on my experience and understanding.  That is, about 35% of the kids have weak executive functioning.

On average (and I know I need to be tread very carefully here these days), the girls are killing the boys when it comes to executive functioning, although of course, there are plenty of girls who do not have well-developed internalized steering mechanisms.

This summer I am going for an in-depth training on executive functioning (I’ve had many previously) and I may be singing a different tune after updating my understanding, but I still don’t see executive functioning as something that can be “fixed.”  That is there is no fix or cure in the traditional sense of the word.

When I tell this to parents they look at me with that, “Come on man, we’re paying you for this stuff” stare of despair, like I am Dr. Gloom bringing them this horrible message of pessimism. (Welcome to my world.)

Of course, you can work on the skills that cluster with executive functioning, but it is a very lengthy, time-consuming, often expensive process that kids may be naturally resistant to undergo.  In fact, most of the time the kid doesn’t think he has any issue (other than his mom is on his back).

So much of the “fixing” comes down to a form of external assistance – I refer to it in my reports as “structuring, cueing and guiding.”

In other words the teacher or the parent provides a certain level of external assistance that helps to get the kid on track on any given task.

Take Marla, an 11 year old I saw recently.  The mom noted up front that Marla had executive function issues (mostly she was right in my opinion).  When I met Marla, she had that dreamy, cloudy way of approaching tasks (“Wait, what did you say, again?  Can you repeat that?”) and it was clear she needed a lot of structuring, cueing and guiding.

The thing is if too much external structuring is given to a girl like Marla, she will get very dependent on it and not try and figure things out on her own.

On the other hand if I am working with Marla and maintain a strict posture of, “You’re 11 – you need to grow up and do it on your own,” this is also probably not the best approach.

While testing Marla, I frequently gave her what I refer to as the “hairy eyeball.”  For example, when I asked Marla  a math word problem like, “There are 12 ducks on the pond and 5 flew away, how many were left,” with her hastily responding “8,”  I gave her that  look that conveyed that she needed to try again.

Without the look, or cue, Marla would have been very likely accepted 8 as the answer without thinking twice about it.

Takeaway Point

Structuring  and other external nudges are essential with these kids.  Sure, it would be nice if they can do it on their own, but you have to meet the kid where he/she is instead of wishing it were so.  If your child is in the 35-40% category find that sweet-spot of providing enough external structure or support to help keep them on track and to take incremental steps toward greater independence.

Copyright, 2019
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“Please, Sir, May I Have Some More Food”The Summer Slide
All comments (2)
  • Stanley Sterenberg
    May 20, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    In the example you cite, 12 - 5, where Maria says 8. it might be interesting to ask her how she got it. She likely […] Read MoreIn the example you cite, 12 - 5, where Maria says 8. it might be interesting to ask her how she got it. She likely simply counted backwards -- 12, 11, 10, 9, 8 -- which is not bad reasoning. The "flaw" in her thinking, is that you are not supposed to count the 12 among the five you are deducting. That might help her to realize that she's not "crazy" -- but just needs to fine tune her approach to a problem like that. The largest impediment to working with anyone (in my opinion) is the fear of embarrassment, that you are the only person who doesn't get something that everyone else gets. Helping a student to see the "good" in her thinking can go a long way toward getting her to trust the person working with her, and to subsequently reveal more of her thinking about various problems she is trying to solve. The knee-jerk answer to "What do you think?" is often "I don't know" -- simply because the person being asked does not want to be embarrassed. Recognizing this vulnerability is often a key to helping others. Read Less

    • Great point. I agree whole heartedly about the underlying fear of embarrassment as a significant variable and overcoming that fear is a central variable […] Read MoreGreat point. I agree whole heartedly about the underlying fear of embarrassment as a significant variable and overcoming that fear is a central variable in helping the child move forward. I do see kids having habitual styles (e.g., rushing through their work, not checking, not considering, etc.) that may be different (although related to what you are pointing out), than the fear of embarrassment that you are describing. In a testing situation that I am frequently engaged, it's not easy to know fully what's behind their response, as I have some limits and have to do a fair amount of inferring. Thanks, as always for the input. Hope all is well. Read Less


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