To get an idea of what Executive Functioning is, just think about that child who is struggling to attend in the classroom. The eyes maybe drifting from wall-to-wall. The teacher’s instructions are incoherent and sound a bit like that teacher in Charlie Brown—Wah…wa…Wah! There’s a bit of fidgeting in the seat and this incessant thought that says—Lunch just can’t get here soon enough!
Sound familiar? If you’re a parent who’s always getting emails from the school or you dread the thought of those teacher conferences rolling around, there’s a good chance you’re more familiar with Executive Functioning than you realize. According to a Harvard University article, it is defined as— mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Some of you parents may be thinking—I have a hard enough time doing those things myself! I feel your pain!
When Executive Functioning issues go unresolved as kids, guess what? Yep, you got it… they will start to haunt us in our work environment! After all, what is work but a grown-up version of school, right? If you want your kids to nip this issue in the proverbial bud before it’s too late, then hopefully the contents of this article will prove helpful.
Just to set the record straight, executive functioning can have impact on children with or without a diagnosis. Perhaps you’re thinking that because your child does not have an IEP or a 504 plan at school that this is not pertinent information. This information can be useful to any child who is struggling to keep up in school, has poor attention skills, has difficulty following instructions, or can’t multi-task his way out of a paper bag.
If you’re one of those parents who was bewildered by the sight of “IEP” or “504 Plan”—I’ve got you covered as well! A 504 Plan provides more basic “accommodation” arrangements for children who can function within a regular class environment, utilizing the services of existing school staff. It may allow for extended time on tests and preferred classroom seating to aid in tasks requiring more focused attention.
On the other hand, an IEP is a more robust plan that calls for extensive collaboration between teachers, special education providers, therapists, pediatricians, parents, etc. An IEP plan is governed by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and according to kidshealth.org—qualifying kids may receive different educational services in a special or regular educational setting, depending on the student’s need.
The following tips should prove just as helpful to those who are not on a formalized “accommodation” plan as it will for those who are:
Fill the Gaps
Is your child behind in school? Do you feel like your child is simply not as smart as his peers? If your child is on an IEP or 504 Plan, chances are you have answered “Yes” to both of those questions. Having answered “Yes” to those two questions could very well account for the reason you sought out “accommodations” for your child to begin with.
If your child is struggling in school and is not on one of these plans, don’t beat yourself up and label yourself as a bad parent! Depending upon your child’s deficiencies or diagnosis, he or she may very well not require any accommodations. Again, this is always dependent upon a child’s individual diagnosis or deficiencies. For the most part, whatever deficiencies your child may have—just identify those gaps and fill them!
So, what are gaps? Chances are these gaps began to form early-on in your child’s education. Look at learning as a continuum of concepts that carry forward from one school year to the next. Each gap represents a break from that continuum or a series of voids that disrupts the continuous flow of education.
Now that you know what gaps are—how does one go about filling them? Somewhere along this vast continuum of knowledge, some critical foundational skills were missed. You can look at these foundational skills as basic concepts that serve as building blocks toward concepts of higher complexity. Consider this passage from Huffington Post…
A large body of research has shown that number sense develops gradually, over time, as a result of exploration of numbers, visualizing numbers in a variety of contexts, and relating to numbers in different ways.
Here is the gist of it!… If a child cannot do basic arithmetic, how can he possibly be expected to do long division, right?
So, the solution should be simple at this point, correct? Go back and fix the arithmetic and everything that led up to the long division—problem solved! While this is true, you must remember that there are probably hundreds of other less obvious gaps that have formed and those will also need to get filled. The best advice I can give for handling all these gaps in foundational skills is to find a full-service tutorial company that can assess the problems and subsequently repair them.
I know what you’re probably thinking! Can this tip be more obvious, right? If you’re experience has been anything like mine, you’ve probably had to sign your child’s daily reading log. Of course, they recommend reading “x” number of books per week. The class that read the most books may even win a pizza party at the end of the term—Yay!
Sound remotely familiar? While I applaud this effort by the schools, there are a few problems with this scenario. First, I feel that kids are often not reading for as long as they claim. The idea of kids embellishing or telling fibs—no way, right? Second, if they are reading for the stated duration, are they reading the right kind of books? Although Diary of a Wimpy Kid is chalk full of humor that admittedly makes me chuckle a bit, it’s not exactly thought-provoking, right? More importantly, given the comic book nature of this book, you can’t help but wonder if it is an exercise in reading or just looking at funny pictures!
Last, but not least—there’s the issue of parental accountability! How many of you parents (…and you know who you are) just freely sign the log without any level of oversight or verification? Inevitably, that signature is requested on the way out the door for school. What else is a parent to say at that point but—Ok… hand me that darn thing already!
My purpose here was not to impugn the integrity of the reading log, but to instead examine reading from a different angle. From both an Executive Functioning and IEP standpoint, enhancing the brain is naturally a critical component. Let’s look at the brain as a muscle. If you go to the gym daily to workout, eventually your sacrifices pay off and what happens? Your muscles expand! The brain is not so different, but instead of relying on physical exertion, it depends upon knowledge input for its expansion.
The brain is not stupid! It can discern between quality content and rubbish! When a child is skimming the images within Diary of a Wimpy, the brain is not receiving the quality, knowledge-based content that it requires. Not only is the content important, but the speed is perhaps equally critical. Success has even been traced back to reading pace, as illustrated in the quote from Forbes…
The most successful people I know don’t just read—they inhale information.
Addressing this issue will necessarily require some parental oversite. Pick thought-provoking books that are relevant to your child’s age and sit down with them. Have them read to you and then ask them questions about what they read. As you create a routine of this, the speed of your child’s reading will naturally increase, but don’t hesitate to hold him or her accountable on the reading pace as well. As always, positively reinforce any progress that occurs!
Naturally, all the reading in the world is useless unless you’re retaining what you read, right? I alluded to “retention” earlier with my remark about asking your child questions after reading, but this concept should go much farther than this!
Retention is more than just retaining what you read, right? It’s also about retaining what the teacher taught in class and retaining content for proper exam preparation. With regard to classroom retention, “learning gaps” play a critical role. If a child is missing key foundational skills from earlier years, he’s unlikely to understand the current material, much less retain it. So, in order for classroom retention to start happening now, it is critical to go back and fill those gaps in learning from the past.
As far as exam preparation is concerned, retention is of utmost importance! On this issue, it is important to distinguish between “memorizing” and “understanding”. When preparing for tests, many students feel that it is critical to memorize the exact definition provided by the teacher. In situations like this, students will spend so much time scrutinizing over the precise wording of the definition that they lose sight of a term’s true meaning. How likely is a person to retain the exact wording of a definition for years into the future?
On the other hand, if a student puts a definition into his own comprehensible words, it may not sound as scientific—but it will make sense! Information is practically useless if it’s forgotten at the conclusion of an exam. As parents, we should be encouraging our children to “understand” the material NOT just “memorize” it.
One proven and effective method that is helpful in retaining information is the use of “acronyms”. I don’t think that it’s any mystery why I still remember the colors of the rainbow from my 3rd grade lesson. ROY G BIV—that’s why! Of course, that is the well-known acronym for: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.
While the above example may seem a bit fundamental and obvious, there’s certainly no law against your children creating their own. While it may increase preparation time, it will pay dividends down the road in retained learning! For children who have difficulty retaining information, this is probably the best solution for them!
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic
As parents, we are so frequently reactive toward our children. We may force them into doing something in which they have no interest, then we punish them when we don’t like the outcome. The best example that I can provide to illustrate this is “School.” You’re probably thinking to yourself, school is required for all children.
In some respects, you would be correct, but there are other options. You can get consent to home school your child, for instance. Let’s disregard these alternate options for a moment. Imagine if you left the school attendance decision entirely up to your children. How many kids would independently choose to attend? Probably not many, right? So, let’s face it—school is something that parents mandate!
When children do something because external forces require it, then the child’s actions are the result of “extrinsic” motivation. As parents, it should be our objective to instill in our children a passion for learning. We want them to be “intrinsically motivated” students, propelled only by their independent quest for knowledge!
I’m about to drop a bombshell here! As amazing as “positive reinforcement” is, you may be shocked to know that “incentivizing” a child to do things actually has a negative effect on “intrinsic motivation”. This article in Psychology Today took the idea even farther, stating…
Offering incentives for an activity that a child likes detracts from the enjoyment, making the child less likely to continue the activity in the future.
While this may seem a bit counterintuitive, with some careful thought—it will make sense. An incentive, while positively reinforcing, is an “external” object or reward used as a means of nudging the child toward a desired outcome. If the child needs the incentive to inspire the action, then it’s not coming from his or her own natural desire to perform the activity.
While it may be difficult, parents need to identify their children’s unique talents or core competencies and praise them for having such talents. We must always be careful not to enter that “vicarious” zone, whereby we try to bestow our own talents or wishes upon our children. Easier said than done, right? Yes, it will be difficult, but I can assure you—it will be worth it!
“It’s Elementary, my dear Watson!” famously declared Sherlock Holmes. What may have appeared elementary to the late great Sherlock Holmes, was likely anything but that to “normal” people. Detective Holmes may have been a lot of things, but normal was certainly not one of them. His mind was bestowed with this gift for “deductive reasoning” that was simply beyond the comprehension of most individuals.
While we don’t necessarily expect our kids to be the next Detective Holmes of the modern world, we should expect them to be logical! Most of us know that “logical reasoning” has become a critical component of standardized tests, but our children need logic for far more than just strong SAT scores. Consider this quote from the classic Winnie the Pooh story…
Pooh looked at his two paws. He knew that one of them was right. Once he decided which was right, then the other had to be left. The question was always—how to begin?
Logic is about going out into the world and being able to “put two and two together!” We lose sight of what logic is sometimes. One of the early lessons in logic for our children is—look both ways before crossing the street! Don’t talk to strangers maybe another one that comes to mind. Without sounding overly cynical or cliché, it is a cruel world out there and our kids need to be prepared.
As adults, the lessons in logic may be more complex and often subject us to the likes of exploitation, deceit, etc. We make decisions on what house to buy, what car to lease, and a wide array of other life-changing events. Logical reasoning becomes the armored suit that protects us from the bait and switch, the shady con, and other manipulative practices that run rampant within our society.
You may be wondering how this corresponds with IEP Goals and Executive Functioning, but strangely enough—it does! Depending on your child’s diagnosis, logical reasoning concepts and passages on standardized tests can be quite difficult—perhaps too difficult to grasp. It’s ok! Not all kids are meant to be statisticians, software engineers, or scientists. We need to accept our children’s strengths and deficiencies and navigate them accordingly.
For children who struggle with “academic” logic, it is important to arm them with tools to apply “real world” logic. How does one teach real world logic? Take your children with you when you buy a car and have them witness the negotiation process. Take them to the mechanic and explain to them why you turned down additional services that were offered. We want our kids to be in tune with many of these situations to avoid getting “ripped off”. Keep in mind that this is a delicate process, as you don’t want them to become staunch cynics with a “glass half empty” view of life!
I know this was a lot to take in, so I’ll keep this brief. I must reiterate that these above tips are applicable to any child—not just those on a 504 Plan or IEP. In many respects, these tips represent life’s “foundational skills”. Just as missing foundational skills in the classroom result in “learning gaps,” missing real world “foundational skills” create “life gaps.” Look at the “real world” as a continuing class room of sorts. So, we must continuously arm ourselves with knowledge and defense mechanisms in order to successfully navigate through life’s many obstacles.