It is no secret that many gifted kids find school tasks easy. They learn quickly and sail through assignments, homework, and new learning with ease. That is…until they “meet their Waterloo.” Because learning has always been easy, many gifted kids have not learned the skills necessary to tackle difficult work, persevere, work through failure, organize themselves and their material, and cope with frustration when the learning no longer comes easily. Seth Perler, an authority on the topic of executive functioning, calls these skills (and others) executive functioning skills. In its simplest terms, Perler asserts that executive functioning is simply “the ability to get stuff done” (homework, writing a paper or cleaning a bedroom, etc.) In other words, executive functioning is the ability to “execute” complex tasks from inception to completion.
For many adults who have spent a lifetime honing their executive functioning skills, it seems that these skills should be relatively easy to master, especially by gifted kids, but as Cole Porter once said, “it ain’t necessarily so…” Things that sound simple to adults can require more executive functioning skills than some kids have. So often when kids fail, adults label this as a “won’t” problem, when it could also be a “can’t” problem. For example, when many children fail to turn in their homework, it is easy to assume that they don’t want to do it, they procrastinate, or they simply didn’t find it worthwhile…a “won’t” problem. What if, instead, this was framed as a “can’t…” problem -- they can’t remember that they even have homework, they didn’t remember to pack the necessary supplies from school, they began the assignment and got distracted, they began the assignment again and ran out of time, they forgot to put it in their backpack, or forgot to put their name on it, or completely forgot to turn it in? All these steps require executive functioning skills – planning, having a system, writing things down, judging how much time something will take to accomplish, finishing a task to completion and checking for detail, etc. And all these skills can be taught.
Many experts on executive function have broken it down into various categories, and the ones most often mentioned are:
It is not surprising that the transition to middle school often exacerbates problems with executive functioning skills in students. There is an increasingly heavy demand on executive functions associated with transition to middle school, e.g., more changing of classes, more demands for organizational skills, study skills, and planning. Additionally, different teachers often have differing expectations, and many teachers no longer focus on organizational skills as was more common in elementary school. Some students may hold it together in middle school and begin to experience more difficulty in high school as they try to juggle homework, co-curriculars and extra-curriculars, home responsibilities, jobs, free time, and friendships. Still others meet their greatest challenges when they begin college or enter the military or workforce, and this is often a time when they do not have as much support nearby.
So how can we help our kids? How can we discover the skills that our kids “can’t” do and support them as they learn how to master these skills? Though this article does not provide enough space to fully examine all the things that we can do, here are some resources that many parents, counselors, and therapists have shared. Two of them,
Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential
and Smart but Scattered Teens: The "Executive Skills" Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential are most frequently mentioned. There are even books and articles that support adults who struggle with executive functioning skills! Using a search engine will give you many ideas, and be sure to check out the work of Seth Perler, a leading authority on this topic. Here is an article to get you started; it talks about the emotional components affecting executive functioning as well as the obvious difficulties that students may have executing tasks. It also gives ways to support students and families, and when and how to ask for help. Above all, let’s try not to label kids as “won’ts” when it is entirely possible that they are “can’ts” (remember: the messages that we inadvertently send to kids become their inner perceptions) – and then let’s provide the skills and practice that will help them become “cans” and “wills”. The payoff will be great!
As always, I welcome your thoughts. Together we grow!
Jackie Drummer, WATG Past President and Current Board Advisor
(WATG would like to extend a huge thank you to Dr. Martha Aracely Lopez of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for our Spanish-speaking families and educators. The translation can also be found in our website blogs.)
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.