Does THAT Student Have Problems with Executive Function?

Executive function is a process that takes place in our brains.  There are three main areas that make up executive functioning skills:

  • Working memory
  • The ability to think flexibly
  • The ability to control one’s impulses

Roughly translated, these skills include:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing
  • Planning what one will do to get a task done
  • Prioritizing what to do first
  • Being able to focus on a task and keeping focused until the task is complete
  • Understanding different points of view, whether that is with real humans or fictitious ones
  • Keeping one’s emotions in check
  • Keeping track of what you are doing, whether that is working on a school task or interacting with others

Most people develop these skills without much input from parents or teachers.  However not everyone does.  This is not because that kid’s parents didn’t teach him the skills.  It is not because she comes from a less-than-desirable home situation.  It is because not every person’s brain is wired in the same way.

Students who have issues with executive functioning skills often are in danger of becoming THAT student.  Their behaviors often become a thorn in the teacher’s side. 

Here are some examples of how issues with executive functioning skills might show up in the classroom:

THAT student

  • Has difficulty getting started on what he is supposed to do
  • Doesn’t seem to be able to get the task finished
  • She can’t seem to figure out what is the most important thing to do first
  • He seems to instantly forget what he just read
  • She hears directions and almost immediately forgets them
  • He can’t seem to follow directions
  • She gets the sequence of steps she’s supposed to do mixed up
  • He gets agitated, anxious, or disruptive when the classroom routine changes
  • She gets upset out of proportion when she thinks classroom procedures have changed
  • He can’t seem to get his thoughts organized so he tells or writes stories in a jumbled up sequence
  • She seems overly emotional about little things
  • He seems to fixate on things
  • She can’t keep track of her belongings
  • His desk looks like the inside of a dumpster
  • Her time management skills seem to be nonexistent

By now, you are probably thinking of a student who shows one or more of these characteristics.

You may be thinking, “This sounds like ADHD.”  Many people with ADHD also have executive functioning skills.  However, one does not have to have ADHD in order to have difficulties with executive function.

What can teachers do to help kids with executive function deficits, and keep them from melting down in the classroom?

Think about how you can explicitly teach the required skills.

For example, if you expect students to write a newspaper article, you can demonstrate that the most important information comes in the first paragraph.  Subsequent paragraphs provide the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of that important information. 

You might cut up newspaper articles and have students work with partners to put the paragraphs in a logical order.  You might work with the class to create an anchor chart.  You can refer frequently to that anchor chart.

Think about how you can scaffold the desired behavior.

Let’s take that dumpster of a desk as an example.  Many teachers have found that creating “desk maps” helps all students organize their desks. 

But just posting the map isn’t enough.  The teacher must help students use it.  For example:

Teacher:  Boys and girls, in a second I am going to tell you to put away your math workbook and get out your writing folder.  Don’t start until I tell you!  First, tell me, where does your math workbook go?  Julie?  That is correct.  Sam, tell me what Julie said.  Yes.  Very good.  Now, where will you find your writing folder?  Jack?  Hm, I think you are getting the journal and the writing folder mixed up.  Look at the anchor chart.  Yes, Jack, that is correct.

The following chart describes some of the things teachers can do to help students with executive functioning issues.

You can find a 26 page pdf booklet about executive function at
https://www.understood.org/~/media/040bfb1894284d019bf78ac01a5f1513.pdf

We can help students learn executive functioning skills!

Teaching School-Appropriate Behavior

When we work with children who use a dialect of English or who have a different home language, we teach those children to “code-switch”, changing from speaking in one’s home language in some circumstances and switching to another language in other circumstances.  We do not penalize the child.  We teach him/her when each language is appropriate.

The same principle is true for behavior.

Children come to school with many ideas about what is the best way to behave.  What is okay at Mindy’s house may be not okay at Henry’s house.  When these children do things that are not appropriate for school, we can blame the parents and deplore the behavior, or we can plan how to teach children what is acceptable at school.

When I was a principal, an eight year old boy was sent to my office.  I was on the phone, but he stormed in and threw himself into the visitor’s chair.  He began talking before I finished my phone conversation.  When I hung up, I interrupted him and said, “Charlie, I am going to show you the school way to come to my office.”  I showed him how to knock on the door frame and to wait until I said, “Come in.”  Then I had him practice doing that.  At first I stood by him and praised what he did right and then corrected any mistakes.  When he had that down pretty well, I sat at my desk and had him try the behavior on his own.  We high fived when he got it right.  Only then did I ask him why he was sent to the office.

The school counselor watched this with her mouth hanging open.  Later she told me that most of the teachers had given up on Charlie, believing he would never behave in the way they expected. 

Charlie was sent to the office many times during that school year, but he never forgot how to ask permission to come into the office.

I offer this story to show that kids can be taught exactly what to do in “the school way”.  Phrasing it in these terms takes away the idea that what children do at home is wrong and what we do at school is right.  That just makes children confused and parents alienated from the school system.  Instead we need to say It is just a different way to behave in a certain situation.  In other words, we are teaching the children to “code-switch” between a place where X behavior is appropriate and a place where Y behavior is expected.

It is difficult to do this at the end of the school year, but we can plan to teach children to code-switch their behavior at the beginning of the next school year.  Here is what to do:

  1. Make a list of the behaviors children seemed to have difficulty with in previous years and what you would rather the children do.
  2. Prioritize the list.  What behaviors are the most important ones?  By prioritizing your list, you will know what behavior procedures you need to teach in the first few days of school and which can be taught later on.
  3. Decide when to teach the behavior.  Something that is of paramount importance to you might need to be taught before you begin the process of handing out books or other beginning of the school year activities. 
  4. Decide how to teach the behavior.  If you can teach the behavior in the context of a subject area lesson, more power to you! 
    1. Explain the behavior.
    1. Model the behavior.  You may choose to first model a non-example.  If you do, model the expected behavior, then the non-example, then the expected behavior again.
    1. Have students practice the behavior.
    1. Reinforce verbally.
    1. Repeat steps A-D as needed.
  5. Remember to re-teach the expected behaviors regularly during the first couple of weeks.  Plan to remind students of the expected behavior after a long weekend or a school holiday.

Teaching children to code-switch their behavior between “home behavior” and “school behavior” saves wear and tear on our nerves.  The time we spend on teaching those behaviors up-front saves our stress level as the year goes on.  In addition, it helps kids understand what to do in a given situation at school instead of just telling them they are wrong.  Learning to “code-switch” behavior is a life skill worth cultivating.

Does THAT Student have ADD/ADHD?

Most of us learned a little about children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in college.  For example, I learned that kids with ADHD couldn’t stop moving and would fidget and squirm in their seats and could not concentrate on anything longer than a few seconds.  My professors told me that these children would calm down when given an amphetamine like ritalin, while those who did not have this disorder would “speed up”.   I was taught that the best place in the classroom for this student was right up front, next to the teacher.  The idea was that if he was sitting there, he would know the teacher had her eye on him and he would control his behavior.  And I was taught that setting up a system of negative consequences and rewards would get him/her to control his/her behavior once and for all.  Further, I learned from various sources that ADHD is a “made up” disorder and that what looks like ADHD is really the result of bad parenting or inappropriate school curriculum.

Does this sound familiar to you?  What if I told you that all of the above were myths?

Myth 1:  ADD and ADHD are “made up” disorders.
The truth is that these are both recognized mental and physical conditions.  People with ADD or ADHD have meaningful differences in their brains, how they process information, and their impulse control.  ADD and ADHD are neurological disorders that have been around for a very long time, but were not recognized as a particular health issue until the last 50 or 60 years.  Even then there were some who labeled children with symptoms of the disorder as “lazy”, “stupid”, “incapable of learning”, etc.

Myth 2:  Children with ADD or ADHD are lazy, stupid, or just plain bad.
It is estimated that the majority of children with ADD or ADHD are above average in intelligence.  They sometimes appear less capable because the work they are asked to do does not hold their attention, or because they are wiggling and squirming when the teacher wants them to pay attention.  They sometimes get the label “lazy” because they do not do school work for a variety of reasons or lose it before they can turn it in.  And ADD/ADHD is not a character flaw.  It is a neurological disorder.

Myth 3:  If a child has ADD or ADHD, s/he just needs to take medication.
First of all, the “test” of ADD or ADHD is not whether or not the child responds to amphetamines in a particular way is outdated.  Doctors who specialize in ADD and ADHD have much more sophisticated ways of determining whether or not the child has the syndrome.

Second, medication works for some children, but not for all.  Some children cannot tolerate the medication, meaning the side effects are dangerous.  For some, those side effects can include an inability to eat, an inability to sleep, increased blood pressure, nervousness, increased irritability when the medication wears off, headaches and stomachaches, moodiness, and overall increased irritability.  The result is that not every person can tolerate the various medications that are used for ADD or ADHD.  And the medication has little to no effect on some.

Third, sadly, our schools cannot control all of the bullying that takes place.  Children who must go to the nurse at particular times of the day to get medication are often the butt of bullying behavior.  Some of the language of that bullying has crept into our everyday language:  “take a chill pill” or “did you forget your meds today”.  This is a reason why some families choose to not medicate their children.

Myth 4:  ADD or ADHD is the result of bad parenting.
Parents can do everything completely right and still have a child who struggles with his/her ADD or ADHD.  Yes, there are parents who let their children “get away with murder”, and there are parents who are too strict with their ADHD children, but the syndrome is neurological, not the result of childhood conditioning. 

However, it is true that having a child with ADD/ADHD can get to a parent’s last nerve.  It can put an enormous strain on the family and can result in parents trying every which way to cope with their child.  This can result in being too harsh, too indulgent, and even in seeking “cures” from both good and fraudulent sources. 

I recall one family that would bundle their child off to the doctor every time they received a negative phone call.  They would ask the doctor to give the child different medication each time.  Sometimes this happened a couple of times in a single week.  The parents believed that medication would create a cure instead of making controlling behavior a little bit easier.  It certainly did not help the child. 

Parents who are caught up in trying desperately to find a way to cope with their “atypical” child really need help from the school rather than blame.  Telling the parent whenever the child has done something the teacher finds unacceptable puts further strain on the family.  Many, if not most, parents experience that as blaming the parents and they can respond with guilt, anger, or frustration.  That, in turn, can alienate parents from the school, and make them believe that the school, and the teacher are “out to get” their child. 

What parents really need is to hear when the child does something good.  If the teacher has not started the year out this way, it make take some serious effort to look for and find good things to tell families about THAT student, but the rewards are great.

Myth 5:  A child with ADD or ADHD needs parents and teachers willing to use strict behavior modification.
Behavior modification is when a person receives negative consequences when s/he chooses to do something like act out, and receives rewards when s/he chooses to do something “right”.  The problem with this approach with children with ADD or ADHD is that word “choose.”  ADD and ADHD are neurological disorders, not the result of choice.  Some children may benefit from some negative consequences, but the majority do not.  After all, if one cannot choose to have one’s brain respond in certain ways, how will a detention or a phone call home (common negative consequences) help?  If one cannot choose how one’s brain responds, how will a trip to the “treasure chest” or a sticker (common rewards) help?

The use of this kind of behavior management system may help in the short term, but it does not help in the long run.  Many with ADD or ADHD have said that they could never get a reward, that they tried their very hardest but they were only punished over and over again.  The result of this is often that the child learns to hate school, to believe the teacher is out to get him.  It can also backfire.  Some students over time become willing to accept negative consequences as a badge of honor.

What many of us learned in college, to have the child sit up front and next to the teacher comes out of this thinking.  However, many classrooms do not have a “front” and a good classroom manager is not going to remain in the front of the classroom or at his/her desk.  Putting a child with ADD/ADHD up front can have a negative effect on the whole classroom because it puts the child and his/her behavior where everyone can see it.  This can break down the child’s relationships with peers. 

I abandoned this strategy after having a class that consistently pointed out what the child with ADHD was doing:  “Ms. Roe!  He’s doing it again!”  I finally realized I was the grown up in the room and that I was much more capable of ignoring fidgeting, squirming, and seat dancing to an imaginary tune better than the children.  I moved that child to the back corner where fewer of his peers would see what he was doing.  I also resolved to allow him to do all of those “hyper” behaviors unless he was disrupting the class.  Life became so much better for me and for that particular student!

What the children need to learn most is a set of strategies s/he can use to cope with the demands of school, and to reach his/her learning potential.

Myth 6:  It’s not ADD/ADHD if the child can pay attention to something and not to others.
Many with ADD/ADHD demonstrate a behavior called “hyperfocus”.  This means that s/he is so fixated on a particular thing that is it is difficult to change to another behavior.  With my son, it was electronic screens – video games or computer screens.  He used to describe it as being sucked into the screen.  To change his focus, I would have to literally get between him and the screen.  Like many with ADD/ADHD changing that focus was difficult and often resulted in angry behavior. 

We see this in the classroom when a child does not respond well to changing activities.  She may continue to work on that math problem even after being told to put math away and get out the science book.  He may whine or act out when told it is time to stop one thing and start another.  Children with ADD/ADHD often benefit from having a quiet timer set up so that they can see how much time is left for an activity, or by the teacher telling the class, “We will be cleaning up in 5 minutes so start getting yourself to a stopping place.”

Children with ADD/ADHD also tend to perseverate.  That means they will continue to do or say something even after the time for that behavior has passed.  For example, the child may repeat a word over and over again, or look for a lost paper in only one or two places because the paper should be in one of those two spots even though it is not in either of those locations.  Sometimes this can look like OCD behavior.  That can be alarming for a teacher the first time they realize that it is perseveration, but please remember to use compassion – the kid just really cannot help it.

Myth 7:  ADD/ADHD is really the result of a poor curriculum.
Teachers are not really in charge of curriculum.  They are hired to teach the district’s curriculum.  But, if you are a teacher, you already know that.  I think maybe the people who say that mean “teaching strategies” rather than “curriculum”. 

There may be some truth to the idea that there are some teaching strategies that are better for kids with ADD/ADHD.  Lecture classes, or classes where students are expected to “sit and get” are probably less suited to them.  However, there is a good argument to say that those type of classes are not good for most students. 

My advice is to remember this “Roe’s Rule”:  The person who does the most work is the person doing the most learning.  That is, if the teacher is doing the most work, then the students are not doing the most learning.  Instead, creating lessons where students do the work is most likely to result in them learning the most.  For example, when I was teaching, the state said every eighth grader was to have a course in Indigenous People in the state.  The social studies teacher complained that she wouldn’t have time to teach everything else if she had to teach all of the “stuff” the state said the kids had to learn about Indigenous People.  I suggested that she form the class up into groups and have each group learn about a particular group, then teach the rest of the class what they learned.  That could be done in several different ways including a Jig Saw method.

There are many myths about people with ADD/ADHD.  We educators need to keep learning about this and other conditions that make a student different from the so-called typical student.  As a nation, we tend to pride ourselves on all being individuals, so shouldn’t we look at each of the students in our class as individuals?  Equity doesn’t mean treating everyone the same.  It means treating each in the way they need most.