Is Executive Functioning the Missing Link for Many Gifted Students?

taking a testDean’s Story

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!

Bio

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.

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Jenna graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in accounting and history. She taught kindergarten and pre-k for two years in Memphis, Tennessee before starting with Nurturing Wisdom as a tutor in 2015. Jenna enjoys helping students succeed on the ACT and High School Entrance Exams. As the proctored test coordinator, she is excited to support students through the testing process. In her spare time, Jenna loves biking around Chicago, baking, and listening to NPR podcasts!

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After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in English from Kenyon College in 2013, Meaghan joined Nurturing Wisdom as a tutor. She has worked with students on ACT prep, and has helped them develop executive functioning and verbal skills. Meaghan is excited to join Nurturing Wisdom’s team of coaches so she can use her tutoring experience to benefit tutors and students alike. She loves being a part of the moment when a student first understands something that’s challenged him or her. That spark of recognition and excitement about learning is what makes tutoring so fulfilling.

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Erin holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in human development and learning. After 15 years in the classroom as an English language arts and special education teacher in Illinois and Massachusetts, Erin jumped at the opportunity to work with students, tutors and families! She is most gratified by figuring out students’ learning styles and helping tutors customize their approach with each student. Erin works with Jeanne to oversee Nurturing Wisdom’s tutoring directors and to communicate with parents about their child’s history, current performance and goals for the future.

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Amanda Vogel has spent four years in the classroom and seven years as a tutor doing what she’s most passionate about: individualizing to the needs of every one of her students. With a master’s degree in special education and a passion for building both confidence and skills, Amanda is extremely excited to oversee Nurturing Wisdom’s Vine Academy! Her vision and expertise are the foundations of Nurturing Wisdom’s tutoring methodology and a large part of our student’s growth and success.

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While teaching at New Trier High School, Pari found that she was able to give her students the highest caliber of education while working with them one-on-one and customizing to their needs. She has since grown her passion into an elite fleet of over 150 tutors who are chosen because of their ability to teach, nurture and relate to students. Pari originally founded Nurturing Wisdom in Chicago and has now expanded it to San Francisco. As the company grows, Pari remains dedicated to putting our students first, seeking the right match between tutor and student, and maintaining the highest standards in recruiting tutors.

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Katy started as a tutor with Nurturing Wisdom in 2013 while pursuing her master’s degree in school social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has tutored ACT test prep, high school entrance tests, and math. Katy is passionate about helping students build confidence in their academics, and she looks forward to doing the same for tutors as a tutoring coach. Katy also spends her free time volunteering, riding her bike, and doing various crafts.

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Beth has a degree in psychology from the University of San Francisco but was clearly destined for a career in education. As the daughter of a teacher, she was stubbornly opposed to becoming one herself, until she discovered the joy of helping someone achieve the “A-ha” moment. She has since found many avenues through which to share her love of teaching and mentoring young people. At Nurturing Wisdom, Beth has tutored math, writing, test prep and executive functioning, and she is excited to be matching families with tutors throughout the Bay Area.

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Becca comes to Nurturing Wisdom with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and art history from Franklin & Marshall College, and believes she was always destined to work within education. Becca has worked as a teacher, coach and most recently college admission counselor at Illinois Tech in Chicago. Her background gives her a unique insight into what makes students succeed and she is looking forward to working with NW families! When she is not working with students she loves exploring Chicago, doing yoga and cooking new recipes.

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Catherine holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Xavier University and a master’s degree in education from Marian. With two years of experience teaching middle and high school science, and three years of general tutoring experience with students from kindergarten through college, she decided to use her talents at Nurturing Wisdom to help ensure that students and tutors alike are having the most beneficial and rewarding experience possible. Catherine loves working with students to develop strategies and schedules to make the most of every minute of each tutoring session. She helps to coordinate tutoring in Chicago.

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Jessica Lepore is a creative educator with over 15 years of teaching experience in the City of Chicago and immediate suburbs. She has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature, and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. Jessica enjoys finding new ways to help students learn and developing curriculum to meet the needs of diverse learners. She has completed coursework in learning and behavior disorders to further help meet the needs of students. In her free time, Jessica enjoys baking, spending time with her family, and cheering on her children in their various athletic and artistic endeavors. At Nurturing Wisdom, Jessica coordinates tutoring on the North Shore of Chicago.

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Kimberly Pilot

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Kimberly holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration and master’s degrees in special education and educational leadership. As a special education teacher, Kimberly has had the opportunity to collaborate with students and families in grades K-12 in Chicago Public Schools and the Western Suburbs, and she values the importance of providing students and families with strategies to assist them in navigating the world of education with confidence. As a community and professional development leader, Kimberly has presented on topics such as executive functioning, ADHD, and response to intervention. Kimberly works with Sam and Colleen to coordinate tutoring services in the Western Suburbs.

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Colleen holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in educational leadership. With eight years of experience teaching high school mathematics and more than 10 years of tutoring experience, Colleen brings a passion for helping students appreciate their individual strengths and weaknesses. Her specialties include ACT prep, study skills and math support. Colleen appreciates the fact that the greatest success can be achieved when all parties – student, tutor and parents – work together. With a background in math, Colleen regularly collects data and makes data-driven decisions to ensure that she is using best practices with her students. She works with Sam and Kimberly to oversee tutoring in the Western Suburbs.

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Western Suburbs of Chicago and San Francisco Bay Area

Sam is an experienced educator with a master’s degree in education. In addition to working with Colleen and Kimberly supervising tutoring in the Western Suburbs, he has been a Nurturing Wisdom tutor for everything from reading and writing to test prep and executive functioning. Prior to Nurturing Wisdom, Sam was an educational coordinator for adults with autism. Sam’s favorite part about being a tutoring director is helping our students make definitive progress.

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