Executive Functioning and Gifted Children
What is executive functioning?
Executive functioning is a broad term that includes several brain functions that help us execute tasks. Some of the skills under this umbrella include (but are not limited to) planning into the future, prioritizing, time management, organization, focus, task initiation, motivation, follow-through, self-regulation, introspection, and working memory. Executive function skills develop throughout adolescents into a person’s 20s and are crucial for school, college, and employment. As Brendan Mahan of ADHD Essentials once said, they are the essence of “adulting.”
Executive function, while tied to success in school and beyond, is separate from academic skills. Research into understanding these core skills is ongoing, but at this time is largely thought to be tied to the development of the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s ability to orchestrate between three other regions of the brain. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, the three dimensions of executive functioning that are most explored are Working Memory, Inhibitory Control, and Mental Flexibility because “in most real-life situations, these three functions are not entirely distinct, but, rather, they work together to produce competent executive functioning.”
Executive function is becoming more widely discussed in education due to its impact on a range of tasks for students. A few common school struggles for students with executive function challenges are multistep assignments, forgetting to turn in homework, issues self-advocating, emotional outbursts, and procrastination on starting projects. It can also be further amplified by other inherited differences and twice exceptionalities, like autism, or environmental influences like lack of sleep.
Do gifted kids struggle with executive functioning?
Asynchrony is a common trait among highly gifted and twice-exceptional children, and their asynchronous profile may delay the development of their executive functioning skills. Asynchrony is often thought of in terms of an uneven development between a child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional development. However, a child’s cognitive development can also be uneven. In terms of executive function, gifted children may have an advanced working memory, but comparatively, an underdeveloped ability to switch attention to new tasks when needed. Asynchrony in gifted children can highlight executive function challenges, especially when it appears that a child is extremely gifted in math but then has difficulty remembering to turn in their homework.
New research into the gifted brain might shed light on another possible explanation for why executive function challenges feature prominently in the gifted community. In neurotypical children, the brain begins “pruning” excess information around the age of 8, which in turn allows for further development of the prefrontal cortex – the center of many executive functioning skills. In highly gifted children, this synaptic pruning process may not start until around age 12 because they have a prolonged “sponge phase” as their brain continues to take in information. Thus, further development of the prefrontal cortex—and advanced executive functioning—may be on a three- or four-year delay. While researchers are still working to understand the gifted brain, this, anecdotally, fits with what the Davidson team has observed in our community. One succinct article detailing a study of this is “Intellectual Ability and Cortical Development in Children and Adolescents.”
Children in the gifted and twice-exceptional community may often display the ability do complex executive functioning for preferred tasks, like hobbies and favorite school subject, while getting tripped up on tasks that should be “easy.” It is normal for these children to have this kind of discrepancy because, in their eyes, the preferred tasks often offer more immediate rewards compared to tasks where their executive functioning presents a challenge, such as managing their frustration when having to show their work steps in math.
How might executive functioning affect my child outside of school?
- Social-emotional Regulation
- As mentioned above, self-regulation makes up a considerable portion of the skills linked to executive functioning. While executive functioning is more commonly cited for issues like organization and working memory, it has a large effect on social-emotional development. In particular for school aged children, this may manifest as difficulty managing frustration, social skills, self-reflection, and issues asking for help.
- Homework and Chore Battles
- Homework and chores are massive and overwhelming for children with executive functioning challenges. A direction like “write a book report” or “clean your room” is actually a multi-step process that requires many executive functioning skills like prioritizing, planning, initiating, switching attention, follow-through, and assessment. Overtime, children start to avoid and resist these tasks, especially when the parent or educator is demanding or using guilt to try to motivate the child to execute the desired task.
- Long-term Issues of Anxiety, Self-esteem, and Motivation
- Educators and parents who may not see that a child is struggling sometimes directly or indirectly send shaming messages, especially when they label the child as lazy or obstinate. Overtime, the messages may be internalized and contribute to surface behaviors like avoidance, resistance, or apathy towards school and other responsibilities. This closed off mindset belies that the child might be feeling invalidated and disillusioned after years of struggling with executive function and not receiving the recognition and support they need.
What can I do to support my child with executive functioning skills?
Parents and educators should work together to provide scaffolding at home and school. Start by helping children identify which area of executive function they need help in, such as emotional regulation, organization, time management, transition, etc. What are their study habits like? How do they learn best? What roadblocks come up when getting from Point A to Point B on a project? Noticing patterns helps reframe the narrative that they are “bad” at something and see they just might need some support in a few key areas.
Switching to exploration questions, rather than providing directives, may also help children who struggle with executive functioning. Rather than telling children what to do, help them practice executive functioning with questions like “How long do you think each assignment will take you to complete?” This may also help build some buy-in for the child. Similarly, it is crucial that parents and educators use positive reinforcement while children are building these skills. For example, if your child forgot to turn in their homework to the teacher but at least remembered to put it in their backpack, that is still a step in the right direction and worthy of recognition.
Luckily, there are many experts and solutions for executive functioning coaching. The following are just a few of the professionals and organizations the Davidson Institute has worked with in the past, but there are many additional resources for executive functioning help.
Seth Perler is an Executive Function and 2E Coach with 10+ years of teaching and serving as a coach to families with executive function challenges. His website includes tools, videos, blogs, and more to help students and parents.
Beyond BookSmart is the nation’s largest Executive Function Coaching company. Beyond BookSmart educates mental health providers, educational professionals, and parents about executive functioning skills and provides coaching services to help support students with improving their self-management skills.
The Smart but Scattered book series provides an executive functioning program for kids, teens, young adults, and adults. The books provide step-by-step instructions, worksheets, and supplemental planners to help individuals at any age build the skills they need to execute tasks.
Executive functioning skills take time, so even if it looks bleak, don’t give up. The most important thing is your relationship with your child. Even if all else is going wrong, make time to be together and laugh. As the adult, be willing to change your expectations to take the long view for a happier future.