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.
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.
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