For parents of gifted students, the story of our student Dean may sound familiar. At three, Dean could correctly identify every Thomas the Tank Engine character that ever appeared on the show. When he was four, he figured out how to read on his own. By five, his obsession with presidents meant he could tell you the name, birthday, and interesting facts about every one. At seven, Dean memorized all of the chemical elements – for fun!
When Dean was eleven, his parents were surprised to find that he couldn’t keep up at school. His papers were a mess – illegible and dog-eared. While he completed his homework in record time, he’d often forget to turn it in. Dean usually aced quizzes and tests, but when he didn’t, he’d get a D. His parents struggled to understand why their bright child was unable to “do” school. It wasn’t until they learned about executive functioning skills that they made sense of it.
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, input is his strength. In fact, his father described his mind as a steel trap! Executive functioning skills are an entirely different set of skills: they include everything that has to do with acting on knowledge, or output. This includes organizing papers, writing down assignments, taking notes, studying, and even writing with structure. It’s the output that Dean struggled with. Information entered his mind very easily and thoroughly, and he had no trouble understanding what he learned. When he tried to share that information or get through a homework list, however, the work product came out very scattered.
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 initially find learning and school to 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’re easily able to understand your lessons, memorize the key details, and recall them later, there’s no need to develop a set of study skills.
Justin, another former student, found this out the hard way. He breezed through elementary school and middle school. He consistently earned A’s without ever studying. So he never learned to study! Even though his developing brain was primed and ready to learn how, he wasn’t getting opportunities to learn, practice, hone, and master study skills. When he transitioned to high school and encountered a rigorous American history course, he had no idea how to approach the class. He floundered for the first time in his academic career.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to studying. If Maddy memorizes all of her assignments throughout grade school and never writes them down, she never has the opportunity to learn and practice assignment management. If Alex flies through his homework each night in twenty minutes, he doesn’t learn to prioritize and organize his time. If Olivia 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.
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 will take a heavy course load in the future, make sure they learn executive functioning skills beforehand. The middle school years are an ideal time for this.
Even if your child doesn’t really need to write everything down or study for their 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 materials, track and prioritize assignments, take notes from a textbook, study effectively, 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 opportunity for you to work with your child’s 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-averse 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 – in terms of both input and output!
Do you have questions specific to your child? Please contact us! We’re here to help.