Is Executive Functioning the Missing Link for Many Gifted Students?
Let me share with you a story about a gifted child I know named Dean whose story might be familiar to some of you. At three, Dean could correctly identify every Thomas the Tank character that ever appeared on the show. At four, he figured out how to read on his own and by five, his obsession with presidents meant he could soon tell you the name, birthday, and interesting facts about every president. At seven, he was memorizing all of the chemical elements for fun. Dean has always had a voracious appetite for reading, enjoys reading the same books over and over again, and could tell you detailed facts about everything he has ever read.
Now that Dean is eleven, it’s puzzling to his parents that he can’t keep up at school. His papers are a mess, riddled with dog-ears. He brought home three missing assignment slips just last week. He usually aces quizzes and tests, but when he doesn’t get an “A”, he’s more likely to get a “D.” While he completes homework in record time, it’s a mystery as to how his teacher can decipher his illegible work. His mom is struggling to understand, “Why is my bright child struggling at school?” The answer can be found in his executive functioning skills.
What is executive functioning?
When we think of traditional learning, we think of taking in facts and developing skills. These are both examples of input. In Dean’s case, his strength is input. In fact, his father has often described his mind as a “steel trap.” Executive functioning (“EF”) skills are an opposite set of skills: they include everything that has to do with acting on knowledge, or output. This means that “EF” includes organizing papers, writing down assignments, taking notes, studying, and even writing with structure. It’s the output that Dean struggles with. Information goes in his mind very easily and thoroughly, and he has no trouble understanding what he’s learning. When he tries to share that information or get through a homework list, however, the work product comes out very scattered.
Is this common in gifted children?
Not all gifted children struggle with executive functioning, but gifted children are often more likely to encounter these struggles than other students. Why? For starters, gifted children like Dean find learning and school to initially be very easy, sometimes even boring. When it comes to developing executive functioning skills, though, there really is a downside to school being “too easy.” If you are able to easily understand your lessons, memorize the key details, and recall them later, there is no need to develop a set of study skills. Justin, a former student of mine who is now in high school, found this out the hard way. He breezed through elementary school and middle school. He consistently earned A’s without ever studying. That also meant that Justin was not practicing these skills. Even though his developing brain was primed and ready to learn these types of skills, he wasn’t getting opportunities to learn, practice, hone, and master studying. When he transitioned to high school and encountered a rigorous American history course, he had no idea how to approach that class. He floundered for the first time in his academic career.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to studying either. If Susie can memorize all of her assignments throughout grade school and never needs to write them down, she never has the opportunity to learn and practice assignment management. If Alex can fly through his homework each night in twenty minutes, he doesn’t have to learn to prioritize and organize his time. If Cheryl memorizes the details of a lecture right as she hears it, she’s not likely to learn good note-taking skills for when the lectures become much more advanced later on. Having a talent for taking in information can actually hamper the development of these output skills.
Don’t wait for disaster
Every executive functioning skill can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered. The key is to learn these skills before they are critically needed for success in a tough class. If your child is going to be taking a heavy course load in the future, make sure that executive functioning skills are being learned early. The middle school years (grades five to eight) offer the ideal window for this. Even if your child doesn’t “need” to write everything down or study for his or her current classes, a tutor or teacher can help get these habits firmly established and set the stage for the future. At a minimum, every child should learn to organize school papers/materials, track and prioritize assignments, take notes on a textbook, study effectively (not just “look over” material), and write responses and paragraphs with structure. These skills are just as important as learning to solve equations or punctuate a sentence!
Executive functioning needs also provide another reason for you to work with your teachers and school to ensure that your child is being adequately challenged. “Too easy” is a problem that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Children who are not challenged enough miss out on an opportunity to practice critical executive functioning skills. They are also more likely to become risk-adverse and not tackle challenges that are out of their comfort zone. When kids are regularly challenged with work that pushes their intellectual limits, without putting them in a constant state of frustration, a lot of development can happen: both in terms of input and output!
Amanda Vogel is the Vice President of Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring and the director of Nurturing Wisdom Academy, a private school in Hinsdale. She has a Master’s degree in special education and over twelve years of experience in teaching, writing curriculum, and supporting educators. She developed Nurturing Wisdom’s extensive executive functioning curriculum for both their tutoring and school programs.