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Tips for Parents: Executive Functioning at Home and School

Gifted Resources

This blog post is from a seminar hosted by Aimee Yermish. Gifted students kids often develop asynchronously; some aspects of development seem to lag behind others. Yermish discusses the frustrations of these struggles.

Author: Yermish, A.
Organization: Davidson Institute
Year: 2012

Gifted kids often develop asynchronously; some aspects of development seem to lag behind others. It is not uncommon to find a gifted kid who has very high cognitive abilities, yet struggles with one or more aspects of executive functioning (EF). EF involves self-regulating attention, mood, and behavior, in order to get complex tasks done well. We can think of EF as being like the little CEO in the frontal lobe. EF begins to develop in earliest infancy, and continues throughout childhood and adolescence. Although we cannot expect all gifted children to develop evenly across all domains, we must remember that being gifted and asynchronous is not a “blank check” for not learning to get along in the world. Particularly if a child’s EF skills are lagging behind those of his non-gifted age peers, we need to help him learn.

Furthermore, research indicates that success and happiness in life are mediated not just by raw intelligence, but also by one’s ability to apply oneself to a chosen task and work through the process. EF skills tend to transfer across domains; if a child learns how to self-regulate in learning one kind of task, it will generally be easier for him to learn to self-regulate in other areas. As adults, even if we struggle with some aspects of EF ourselves, one of the most important things we can help our children with is to develop their own EF skills.

Weaknesses in EF tend to affect all areas of gifted kids’ lives, including some of what might seem like basic self-care or home life tasks, and can be extremely frustrating for parents and siblings. In general, when something is chronically frustrating to family members, it is because:

  1. We’re asking for the wrong change.
  2. We’re not asking for enough change.
  3. We’re asking for too much change all at once.

In order to know which change to ask for, it very much helps to break the task down and figure out which aspects are working and which ones aren’t. People often speak of EF as if it were a single entity, but, in fact, there are many different facets to it. A child may have strong skills in one area, but struggle in others. There is no official consensus list of executive functions; the following list is compiled from several different sources:

  • inhibition of impulses, stopping to choose an appropriate response
  • previewing likely consequences of action (both short- and long-term)
  • holding and manipulating information in working memory
  • sustaining attention despite distraction or fatigue
  • planning, both short- and long-term
  • saliency determination, figuring out which details are important
  • task initiation – getting started on a chosen task
  • depth of processing, choosing a level that is not too superficial or too consuming
  • tempo control, maintaining an appropriate speed and rhythm for work
  • development of automaticity, making a skill routine so it takes no conscious effort
  • satisfaction, perceiving and deriving pleasure from reinforcers
  • organization, both internal (thoughts) and external (materials)
  • time management – predicting how long things will take, planning, and acting
  • flexibility – adapting strategies or plans in response to mistakes or new information
  • self-monitoring – observing one’s own performance and comparing it to standards
  • emotional self-regulation – being aware of and managing feelings
  • metacognition – being aware of one’s own thought processes

None of this is black and white. In each area, a child may have some levels of performance he can do easily, and some levels where he simply cannot perform no matter what. What we want to do is become curious and strategic about finding the middle ground, where he can perform, albeit imperfectly, with difficulty, or with some cues or scaffolds. That is where learning can take place. As much as possible, the system itself, rather than the parent, should provide cues, reminders, and a way for the child to determine whether the task has been completed to appropriate standards. The child can then be cued to use the system, rather than just reminded to do the task. As he demonstrates the ability to perform more independently, the level of cuing can be gradually faded, and new goals can be established.

Not asking for enough change and asking for too much change all at once are often two sides of the same coin. Many parents complain about feeling that they have to be the child’s substitute frontal lobe, and despair of ever being able to get him to take over. They impose a fix-it-all-now executive system themselves, and the harder they try to enforce compliance, the more resistance and apathy they are met with. Therefore, they conclude that the child is incapable of change.

All too often, the kids figure out at some level that they are fundamentally incompetent and cannot achieve anything important, two serious motivation-killers. They also often figure out that learning to self-regulate is the parents’ goal, not their own, and become resistant – almost all people tend to resist what they view as being imposed upon them.

Kids often have a hard time maintaining a focus on the long-term goal of their own growth and development. It’s just too abstract, particularly for gifted kids with lofty life goals. Their weaknesses in EF and motivation often lead them to adopt short-term goals that serve to make their lives easier (get people to ask less of them, get Mom to leave them alone, get something they haven’t earned, get the work finished with minimal effort, etc). These strategies tend to be harmful in the long term, often seriously interfering with their learning. It is important to be aware of these strategies and to not allow them to work.

If a child is constantly distracting and confusing you about what is required, you can pin the slippery fish down with persistent but patient, clear, factual, and nonjudgmental questioning. It also helps to connect directly with the teachers so that you know what the answers should be; the goal then becomes to help the child increase the accuracy of his reports.

You do not have to justify everything to a lawyerly kid who argues and insists upon proof or fairness. Goals and standards should be clearly articulated, in terms that the child can measure himself against. It is important that you establish consistent family expectations that you are willing to stick to, despite the child’s attempts to bargain. When you give in on something you have said is important, you both reinforce the bargaining behavior and send the message that you don’t care that much about the goal.

If a child frequently comes up with minimal-effort strategies, establish goals with him that involve measurable skill mastery rather than time-on-task or quantity of work completed. Explicitly redirect the child when he uses strategies that allow him to complete work without applying significant attention to what he is learning. Have the child practice monitoring his own performance against standards; focus not only on the skill development, but on developing the accuracy of his self-monitoring and self-direction.

As much as possible, try to find goals that parents and children can agree on. “I don’t want to have to keep bugging you, either,” can often be a reasonable common ground, but it is better to keep the child focused on something he honestly values about what he is working on.

There is no perfect one-size method for any of this; think of it as a lifelong work-in-progress for each of us.

Aimee Yermish is an educational therapist specializing in work with children who are gifted, learning-disabled, or twice-exceptional, providing assessment, enrichment, remediation, mentoring, program development, and parent and teacher guidance. She draws upon her analytical background as a research scientist and her practical background as a classroom teacher in order to create individualized strategies for each child.

See also: Executive Functioning – what is it, why we need it, and how we as parents can support our children’s development


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