Symptoms, Understanding & Coping Strategies
Cynthia Z. Hansen, M.Ed.
Difficulty starting a task; staying focused on school tasks, managing simple routines, great ideas without follow-through; late work, and lost work: Sound familiar? Then read on! There are many reasons why students may have these difficulties, from disengagement due to boredom, learning disabilities, or processing and perceptual difficulties. Yet our brightest students are often labeled “lazy” or “stubborn” when they have difficulty managing their world: a realm that requires strong executive functioning skills.
Tasks which seem mundane to adults may be overwhelming to a fast thinking, deeply pondering child. Gifted individuals already cope with intense emotions, sensory awareness, the ache to be in constant motion, intellectual depth, and visual awareness depending on their areas of giftedness. Many of our gifted students get caught between their accelerated intellectual development and their delayed physical coordination, social abilities, or overall coping abilities. This mismatch is confusing not just for parents, but for our children as well.
Executive functions are like threads of a tapestry that are colored by setting, environmental factors, social context, the motivational forces of the task, and the desires of the student. Understanding how executive functions effect the learning and retrieval process using a strength based model, families can discover the tools to support a child’s atypical learning style common to many of our special needs students. It is through our strengths that both adults and children can gain the self confidence to make changes.
WHAT IS EXECUTIVE FUNCTION?
Think of the Pre-frontal lobe of the brain, where executive function originates, as the keyboard of a computer. A simple keystroke is not enough, even to turn on the computer, but needs to be accompanied by a series of strokes. From typing a series of letters in the proper order to create a correctly spelled word, to adding ashift,controlorfunctionkey to produce or retrieve information, there are countless combinations. None of us are perfect, and each of us has strengths and weaknesses when using a computer which varies day to day and task to task depending on our mood, and the complexity and familiarity of the task at hand. Those of us who have great skills using computers, or have strong executive functions, are unstoppable in what we can accomplish, even if the computer is a bit slow. Those of us whom just can’t get the knack of the keyboard and how to use those shortcuts, suffer with slow production, high frustration and avoidance.
Executive function is a stronger predictor of academic success than IQ because it impacts one’s ability to remember and store information; to read and understand text; to process multi-step mathematical equations, to self-regulate behavior and emotions, to inhibit thoughts in order to get to sleep, and to successfully complete a myriad of tasks. These tasks get more complex as our children move from kindergarten where the teacher and parent do many of these tasks for the child, to middle school where the child is faced with multiple classrooms, multiple teacher styles, and more complex tasks in content areas.
Everyone has stronger and weaker functions on a given day due to exhaustion, stress, and energy levels. And none of us has perfect functioning in all areas. The question to consider is: Does a functionimpaira child’s day-to day coping abilities or academic success on aconsistentbasis?
Acquiring Executive Function skills is a developmental process, like walking and talking. For our very brightest children, development in this area of the brain may be delayed 2-3 years all the way into their late 20s to early thirties. Intervention can help students develop key skills and confidence, despite the difficulty.
HOPE: A STRATEGY TOOL-KIT
Even professionals, with assessment data in hand, will experiment with different strategies and work with the family to assess their effectiveness. So trust yourself, laugh with what fails, embrace what works, and enjoy learning about yourself and your family!
My kids are my inspiration, my enigma, and the source of many “ah-ha” moments. But be clear: “Yours will be different.” Your situation, your child, and your classroom is unique. As you gather advice; and observe what others do, I ask you to trust your instincts and observations of your child, and let them guide you. Remember:
Change Takes Courage
Change Takes Practice
Change takes Time
Cindy Hansen received her teaching certificate, and Masters of Education at UCLA and Certificate of Gifted Education from UCSB. In addition, she has taken extensive courses in learning assessments, learning disabilities, and Educational Therapy at CSUN and has taught a wide variety of subjects, from Theatre Arts to Math since 1986.
Ms Hansen presents parent and teacher workshops on understanding Executive Functions; Time and Organizational Coping Strategies (“Seeing What I Need To Do”), and Understanding Intensities. She also is available for private consultations. You may contact her at CindyZHansen@gmail.com.
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