Dear Drs. Utay
After testing with a school psychologist, we were told our son has a problem with executive functioning. He is intelligent but can’t apply himself. I thought he just needed more motivation or better study skills but it’s more complicated than that. What is executive functioning and how do I work with my son to improve it?
Executive functioning affects every aspect of life in and out of school. Many children just like this boy struggle with executive functioning deficiencies, but few are given the tools to make improvements. Let’s start with the basics.
How often is your child REQUIRED to pay attention to something, think about it, make a plan regarding it, and monitor progress, followed by remembering and actually completing the plan? This all-day, every-day chain of thinking events is, as the old saying goes, “only as strong as its weakest link.” Brain scientists call this process the brain’s executive functioning. Think for a moment where this process typically breaks down for your child.
The professional definition of executive functioning is: A set of processes involving managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills using mental control and self-regulation. In plain English, we’re talking about how well and fast someone pays attention, thinks, makes plans, then remembers and actually completes a plan. That entire process could take a matter of seconds when eating a bite of food or weeks when completing a big school project or preparing for and taking a test. The problem comes when a link is weak or missing from this brain-based chain of events:
John started off the year great but soon his parents began to get notes from school about missing assignments and falling grades. They were shocked that their bright son was all of a sudden not doing well in school. He explained that he missed just one assignment and one test he forgot to study for and so he assured them this was a temporary problem, and in fact, not really a problem. His parents told him to try to stay more organized and remember to write everything in his assignment book. They offered him a new video game to motivate him to get his grades up.
Many parents will recognize that scenario. If John’s problem was lack of motivation, then the problem is solved. If his problem was not writing down all his assignments or a need for better organization, problem solved. Many kids like John “simply” need caring supportive parents to get involved by encouraging him and providing structure and clear expectations to achieve at the level they know he can attain. However, often students need more than motivation or better study habits. Many lack the “brain tools” to continue the same level of school success they had just a year before.
Let’s say John is now organized and motivated. With a large assignment due, John had to really buckle down. Which scenario most resembles your child?
- Due to an upcoming tournament, John’s mind is easily derailed from even starting to work on the project. Therefore, the process stops before it begins.
- John sits down to begin working on the project, focuses well at first, but is confused by what exactly is required, so stops in frustration.
- In this scenario, John focuses, thinks about what is needed, but then has trouble creating a specific plan to follow, so postpones, consequently ending, the project.
- John gets all the way through the planning stage, but in the middle of the 5th step of his 10-step plan realizes a) somewhere in the process he stopped following the teacher’s requirements and b) he now only has 3 minutes left to complete what the plan called for. The project is turned in incomplete.
- He pays attention, thinks about, creates, then starts to implement the plan, monitoring his progress along the way so he can modify as needed. He then can’t remember key aspects of the topic and/or process. Therefore, memory glitches bring the process to a halt.
- In this final scenario, John makes it all the way through the process from focusing on his project, all the way to almost finishing it. Somehow, something happens to get in the way of completing the process. (Even more frustrating is when it is finished and “simply” not turned in.)
Begin with testing to check that executive functioning is really the issue (specifically which if any link is weak) or if something else is blocking potential. Check out articles posted at TotalLearningCenter.com and call Total Learning Centers (724-940-1090) to make an appointment to discuss your child’s specific needs and how we or other community resources can be used to prepare today for success tomorrow.
Total Learning Centers is a privately owned, academic, brain-based learning facility in the Pittsburgh, PA area. TLC offers one-on-one tutoring in an open, child-friendly environment for clients ages 5 through adult. Founded in 1999 by Drs. Joe and Carol Utay, TLC prepares students today for success tomorrow through direct, intensive, research-based methods to ensure significant gains in reading, writing, math, attention, processing, working memory and more. For more information or to speak with one of our qualified staff members, call (724)-940-1090. Visit us on the web at www.totallearningcenters.com