It can be helpful to think of developing executive functioning skills as collecting “experience points” (usually called “XP”) in video games. Getting XP isn’t necessarily fun and exciting, but having enough XP unlocks harder challenges, specific opportunities, and special abilities.
~ Dr. Matt Zakreski, Psy.D., School Counselor, The Grayson School
When organizing and planning tasks, we employ executive functioning (EF), a set of mental skills put to use by most of us without much thought or intentional effort. Adult life requires an awful lot of EF — it’s how we get to the airport on time, how we buy a house or get projects done at work or chores done at home. EF in children, however, and particularly in gifted children, is a very different thing, and EF deficits and/or weaknesses can easily become a source of frustration for children as well as for teachers and parents.
Executive function is what allows you to plan and perform a series of actions needed to complete a specific duty or project. Children, naturally, don’t tend to excel in this kind of seeing-around-corners planning, and things “fall through the cracks.” What it looks like is homework that is completed but not turned in; incomplete work despite plenty of time to complete it; or last-second panic over a long-term project that is due in the morning. When this happens, you may encounter these tried-and-true phrases: “I am not organized.” “I can’t stay focused.” “I am not a good planner.”
We’ve heard those from our kids, and, more than likely, we’ve said these phrases at some point about ourselves.
The good news for gifted students battling attention, mood, or impulse issues — which can be governed by EF— is that it is possible to manage and ameliorate EF weaknesses. Research shows that we can improve the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning with early interventions and strategies. Even by practicing breathing exercises and balancing games, it’s possible to develop these cognitive abilities and apply them to all aspects of your life.
Begin By Talking About Executive Skills With Gifted Learners: Creating Buy-In
Teaching children how to improve executive functioning skills requires patience and a set of achievable, short-term goals. The first step is making sure the child is on board and ready to do the work.
At The Grayson School, students work regularly with “Dr. Matt,” school counselor Matt Zakreski, Psy.D., on improving organization and planning techniques, both of which are EF skills that stymie many gifted students.
“When we think about building executive functioning skills in students, I think that most people fail to achieve an initial buy-in,” Dr. Matt says. “I would suggest working with your children to determine what areas of their lives they feel that they’re struggling (e.g., forgetting homework at school), and what their values are (e.g., ‘I want to get good grades’). Parents are less successful at implementing changes without child approval, so why fight? Find an area that motivates your child, and work from there.”
Dr. Matt explains that because success breeds greater success, adding more executive functioning skills in one arena is likely to transfer the improvements to other arenas:
“If your child wants to be a better YouTuber, what does she need to get started? Where is a good place to keep her materials? What schedules/deadlines exist for her to work with? What values are active in these efforts? Work with your child to find her own answers and then check in periodically — see how things have changed, both positively and negatively. With that information, you’ll be much more likely to be able help her implement EF changes in different arenas. Remember that kids are also very adept at using technology; use their interests and skills to your advantage! There are many apps that help kids organize themselves and keep their focus, such as 30/30, Evernote, and Quizlet.”
“Partner with your children to add the changes they need to be more successful at home and at school,” advises Dr. Matt. “Anticipate failures and setbacks. For example, if your child remembers his backpack for two months, then suddenly forgets it again, reflect back to the effort given, which is far more important than the temporary set back.”
Dr. Matt suggests that talking with your gifted child about how EF works can be helpful, especially since their advanced verbal abilities and abstract thinking skills actually make such a metacognitive conversation possible at a young age. “You can tell your child that executive functioning is a skill that develops over time (thanks to brain development), rather than being something inborn,” he explains. “Every time they practice by making a plan, organizing a planner, or setting up a checklist, they are literally changing their brains for the better!” Think growth mindset.
Executive Functioning Skills and Gifted Children
“The goal of gifted education is to achieve eminence in one’s chosen field,” Dr. Matt says. “Yet it is awfully hard to achieve eminence without executive functioning skills. Being able to self-regulate and self-reflect are vital pieces of these children’s ability to reach their high levels of potential. It’s also really important to reflect on the importance of using executive functioning skills to being able to act appropriately in the world.”
While most gifted students excel academically, many have significant EF challenges. Some of these may include managing time, paying attention, and following directions. The problem is compounded because the students often don’t need any of these skills in their early school years — the work in typical mixed-ability schools is so easy for them that it takes nearly no time, effort, or even looking at the instructions at the top of a worksheet for them to complete work successfully. So when their peers are learning all of these things alongside their elementary spelling and arithmetic homework, the gifted child is instead rewarded with academic success without developing these skills at all.
At some point, though, the level or amount or type of work “catches up with” a gifted student, so that even a student with stellar academic performance and intellectual capability can have her performance in school fall apart because she truly doesn’t know how to work incrementally on a two-week-long project or how to carefully parse the language of an assignment to write an organized, targeted essay. She was managing just fine without these EF skills for so long that now it is genuinely remedial to pick them up, and she definitely knows it — so there may be some chafing at the idea that she needs explicit instruction and/or support for something this seemingly simple.
It’s important for you and your child to understand that EF skills aren’t only useful for academic work; even a straight-A student will eventually will have a hard time managing his life outside the classroom unless she has EF skills in her cognitive “toolbox.”
Does your child want to go to college? Get a job? Go on a date?
“Being organized and holding a structure is important to getting things done personally and professionally,” says Dr. Matt. “For all of these life skills, it is vitally important to be organized, show up on time (and prepared!), and keep focused despite distractions.”
Dr. Matt shares uses examples to help his students grasp the real-world implications of EF problems: “Brian” was a bright kid whose goal was to work at GameStop. He applied and got an interview, but arrived 20 minutes late due to rush-hour traffic. As a result, Brian, who was overqualified for the position, walked into GameStop with his tie untied and without his résumé. (Adults will be unsurprised to hear that he didn’t get the job.)
Students also hear a social example — in this case, describing “Sally,” who finally worked up the courage to ask a date to the winter formal. Thinking the event started at 8:00 p.m., Sally and her date arrived an hour late on dance night and weren’t admitted to the event.
“Whatever the child thinks the ‘final boss’ is (e.g., getting a job, going to college), you need A LOT OF XP (experience points) to even get to that level, let alone be successful when you get there,” Dr. Matt cautions. “Developing this competence early and often will build the skills they need to be successful.”