Executive Functioning

There has been much research done that explores the connections between executive functioning and learning differences. A diagnosis of ADD does not have to be present for a child to experience challenges in executive functioning.  However, for the ADD child, these skills are ever-present.  Among the varied ways ADD can wreak havoc in a child’s life, problems associated with executive functioning skills are quite possibly at the top of the list.  If “executive” sounds significant, that’s because it most certainly is!  As in a company where the executive is in charge – directing, organizing, and constantly making decisions – so it is with executive processing in the brain.  If you know someone who is extremely organized and well prepared, who can plan a wedding, rebuild an engine, prepare a five course meal, write a research paper and toilet train a toddler all in the same week, you’ve seen high level executive functioning at work!  Key components are the ability to analyze a task, prioritize, sequence, set goals, monitor progress and re-evaluate if necessary.  Obviously, this involves tremendous amounts of clarity, tenacity and attention to detail.  Research supports the conclusion that although this is a cognitive function, many people with deficits in this area have superior cognitive abilities.  They just have trouble organizing, expressing and executing what they know and what they think.

“Apprenticeship” is a word that always brings to mind images of blacksmiths and their torches on cobblestone streets during the Renaissance—a  master in the craft and his student working side by side.  It’s not a word you often hear now;  if we want to learn something, we google or you-tube it, or we take a class and listen to an expert lecture. Eventually, we may take an exam to see if we’ve mastered the material.  But apprenticeship is a beautiful concept in that it opens up a space for this executive functioning skill to develop.  I think of it as a very nurturing way to learn.  Apprenticeship is about modeling, metacognition, and scaffolding.  The master invites the novice into a kind of dance, a reciprocity where failure is not only accepted; it is welcomed.  For how else does one learn except by failing and trying again?  Adolescents need to be given the permission to fail and to recover.  This is life, after all.

In my teaching, I never require a student to attempt a particular task without first showing him what it looks like.  I do it first.  Then I do it again.  Then I invite him to help a bit, then gradually, we are partners until at last, he is the master of his craft.  That is where the magic happens.  If you would like to read more about apprentice learning, Howard Gardner is an excellent resource.  Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences leads the way for a new paradigm of teaching which celebrates diversity.  Check out: www.howardgardnerschool.com.

A child with poor executive functioning is a frustrated child.  But he need not spend his life frustrated when there are research-based interventions which increase self-awareness, reflection, and problem solving skills

Further reading:

Kelley Carter is an educator and private tutor in the Dallas area, also serving students in Lake Highlands, Highland Park, and the Lakewood area of Dallas.

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