Every 10 years or so in education and psychology there is a trendy hot topic or new term that was essentially unheard of the previous decade. Before learning disabilities became a hot term in the 1970s, these were virtually unknown in the public. The same was true with ADHD, which became a hot term in the mid-1980s into the 1990s. (I know, I know, I am dating myself.)

Executive function deficits is one of those terms.  Prior to 2005 or so, very few people were making reference to executive functions in the real world. Whereas now  the term is becoming more commonplace. Parents will even state upfront (before the child has even been tested) that they think the child has problems with executive functioning.

While I tend to be one who does not embrace too many hot trends, this conceptualization of  why children struggle makes a lot of sense to me and think it should be understood better.

When I work with parents, I do all I can to stay away from jargon, preferring to translate into metaphors terms that are casually tossed around with imagery that parents can better understand.

For example, trying to explain executive function deficits to parents, I use the imagery that the kid’s “boat is being steered by a very floppy rudder.”  Another image I use to explain frontal lobe, executive function deficits, is a weak “orchestra leader-one that is being ignored.”

Take Mark, age 14, a ninth grader who is bright, creative, witty, charming and personable. Mark is an absolute pleasure on so many levels. However, when it comes to managing his time and facing his “pain” (i.e.,  his homework) on a day-to-day basis, it Mark has given his parents fits for number of years. The stress level on the household has become unbearable, getting worse every grade from latter elementary school to the present day.  Mark has a very tough time steering his boat and he is drifting around at sea aimlessly.

One of the challenges, kids like Mark are almost immune to becoming organized or to steer their boat more effectively.

From what I’ve seen, change can come in small, incremental steps.  If you focus on small steps in terms of mastering and internalizing different skills, then change can occur.

Executive function coaching can make a big difference in terms of targeting the specific skills. For example, Mark can be shown how to use and color code his calendar practice this skill over time (practicing to mastery).

One word of caution though.  The odds of success are very poor if this skill is being delivered by you as a parent. Kids are wired to tune out their parents.  They will fight you, resist you and basically show you how your approach doesn’t work.  They won’t do that with “hired gun,” that is, the coach. So, even though it will cost you, you will save a lot of grief and aggravation by finding someone who gets this approach of one baby step at a time.

In summary, keep your expectations modest, do a lot of deep breathing and you will get through the coming year.

(Adapted from “School Struggles,” Richard Selznick, Ph.D., 2012, Sentient Publications)