(Executive Functioning and Park Academy Students)
By Craig Lowery, Head of School
Mom: “Hey kiddo, time to get up! Get dressed, grab your backpack, and come downstairs for breakfast.
… 10 minutes later… (kid is sitting on the floor, flipping through a magazine)…
Mom: “Why do we go through this every day?!… What did I tell you to do?”
Kid: “You did? … I didn’t know.”
I have spent my career working with student populations that often struggle to organize themselves and their lives according to standards we call “normal”. In school, this means completed but lost homework, messy cubbies, and backpacks, and difficulty managing their time on projects and assignments. At home, parents describe students who get easily distracted between tasks, have difficulty initiating work, and in general “would lose their heads if they weren’t attached.” For many, this is a normal part of adolescent development but for others, this is persistent, life-impacting, and can lead to feelings of frustration on the part of many adults in their lives. These difficulties take many forms and impact students to varying degrees. In the developmental sciences, we often refer to these as Executive Functioning Difficulties.
One simple definition of executive functioning states that it is “the process of coordinating, prioritizing or management information to perform tasks successfully” (Understood.org). Intelligent, motivated, and talented children may struggle with simple tasks and expectations. These processes often occur in the frontal lobe and this portion of the brain is believed to continue maturing until about the age of 25! Struggles can show up as difficulties with focus, memory, attention, and organization.
My experience has led me to conceptualize Executive Functioning Difficulties for many students as a struggle with generalization and prediction. Students impacted by significant executive functioning difficulty have a very hard time learning from the context in their environment. Even if they learn something academically or socially, they may struggle to apply their knowledge to new settings. For example, a student who was coached on raising their hand in math class may begin blurting out again in social studies because the context has changed. A student who learned the content order for a three-paragraph paper may struggle to apply that knowledge in science or to their next writing task. In addition, students with Executive Functioning Difficulties have difficulty imagining and picturing what they want to occur from their actions. When faced with a writing task they may struggle to know where to start even if they have all the skills necessary and can demonstrate them in isolation. When asked to put them together, it looks as though they don’t understand the assignment when they are actually struggling to order and prioritize the tasks.
This impacts students in every aspect of their lives. Adults who do not understand what is happening (and sometimes even when we do) can get very frustrated as it appears that the student is not listening or understanding. It is in these moments that students receive messages of disappointment and frustration and they internalize this as failure.
There are ways to support and understanding these dynamics better. First, we must make sure that our expectations match the student’s ability. I once heard a wise man say that the gulf between expectation and ability is conflict and I believe this is very true. Students are still developing and often times executive functioning difficulty represents a “lag” in skills, not a “deficit”. In other words, they will improve!
Next, break things down into simple steps, ask students overtly what they want the outcome to be, write the steps down or provide visual cues, and coach them to figure out what they need to do to make the outcome a reality.
Finally, repetition, repetition, repetition…
Keep solid and simple routines and stick to them. Coach them: We overestimate adolescent’s ability to learn from their surroundings and their experiences and do them a disservice when we assume that they should know things from observing others. Make the covert expectations of society and life overt learning opportunities and then repeat those lessons consistently. When we understand the expectation/ability relationship, coach students, and repeat lessons and supports we can take the failure out of the difficulty and help students with the very complicated task of navigating school and life.