For at least a decade I have been trying to teach my daughter Sam “executive functioning.” For at least a decade she has been failing to learn—to learn how to manage her time, prioritize her obligations over her preferred activities, organize her belonging, regulate her impulsivity, and plan and execute projects such as writing a paper. After a decade, one might wonder if this is a losing battle. And that’s the question.
Executive functioning strategies abound. We have tried visual strategies, including special clocks and timers, visual schedules, and homework and chore checklists. We have tried planning discussions in which we estimate the amount of time each activity will require and then factor in breaks. We have tried scripts, we have tried first/then instructions, and we have tried threats. We have tried IEP goals. We have tried me yelling that I do not care if she fails all of her classes and lives in a pigsty the rest of her life.
The problem is, when the cat walks in the room or an interesting picture shows up in a textbook or an unfinished sewing project peeks out of a bin, all beg for attention. The strategies derail. If Sam had to learn the word “futile” for a vocabulary test, her struggle to learn executive functioning skills would be the perfect example.
Then last weekend Sam was working on a paper for English. It was, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, the first paper she has ever attempted by herself. She completed a “pre-write” which involved composing paragraph-long responses to a series of questions. Next she asked me to sit with her, just to keep her company as she wrote the essay. When I noticed that she was hunting and pecking the identical words to those in her pre-write, I suggested she cut and paste the passage. She scrolled back up, highlighted the words, and then stopped. I assumed her mind was wandering to another topic until, after a minute or two, she said, “I think maybe these answers are supposed to be the different paragraphs.”
Holy cow. Ten years of graphic organizers, outlines and pre-writes, and she never knew why; she never realized how they connected to writing a paper! Did we all assume she knew? Did it just take a while to sink in? Or did we explain it repeatedly, but her brain was not ready to process it? In other words, was the last ten years just a waste of energy?
executive functions are associated largely with the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the last part of the brain to mature. Even in cognitively sophisticated people, the PFC does not operate optimally until the third decade of life. And adolescents with autism or ADHD exhibit significant, though distinct, abnormalities in the amount, direction and distance traveled by the two neurotransmitters seratonin and dopamine as they send messages from the PFC to other parts of the brain. It’s a double whammy of executive functioning not functioning well. But we need to remember that inefficiency in neuronal activity is different from an absence of such activity. New pathways do develop and old pathways are pruned, even in the most atypical of brains.
Next up is intuition. We parents know our kids, and we have seen that new skills take time to sink in. Sometimes they click in like learning to ride a bike, and sometimes they take an entire childhood, like remembering to write thank-you notes. We have all seen our children learn things we never thought they would master.
And finally, we parents need to feel like we are doing something. We need to feel proactive, even if we are proactively stepping back to let our children learn from failure. Especially for those of us who live in dread of phone calls from teachers, we need to prove that we are neither oblivious nor lazy. So even if the lists, schedules and threats are futile, we at least have the effort on display.
When I take these three considerations together, I do not believe the last decade of failed strategies has been so clearly a failure. Every once in awhile, we see glimmers of success, such as Sam’s epiphany about pre-writing. Nobody really knows what any person is capable of learning and when that window of opportunity will be open. Given our ignorance, the best strategy is to keep trying the latch and hope to catch a breeze.