By Robin Hansen
September 27, 2013
When parents have a high functioning child per se, as in a child who has average or high intelligence but who also has a neurological impairment such as ADHD, a learning disability, autism or any invisible disability, school staff may judge these families harshly. Not only are the parents judged, the children are judged. The child is called lazy, stupid, uncooperative, unmotivated, etc. They are punished by letting them fail, to “teach them a lesson.”
What school staff do not understand, is that “failure” does not teach these children NOT to fail again. I wish I could make some teacher write ““Failure does not teach these children” 500 times on the blackboard. Most of these children do not have executive functioning skills. Executive Functioning expert Chris Dendy outlines the characteristics on her website. Here is her list.
Components of Executive Function
Based upon material from Barkley, Brown, and Gioia I have outlined eight general components of executive function that impact school performance:
- Working memory and recall (holding facts in mind while manipulating information; accessing facts stored in long-term memory.)
- Activation, arousal, and effort (getting started; paying attention; finishing work)
- Controlling emotions (ability to tolerate frustration; thinking before acting or speaking)
- Internalizing language (using "self-talk" to control one's behavior and direct future actions)
- Taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing it into new ideas (complex problem solving)
- Shifting, inhibiting (changing activities, stopping existing activity, stopping and thinking before acting or speaking)
- Organizing/planning ahead (organizing time, projects, materials, and possessions)
- Monitoring (self-monitoring and prompting
I've found it helpful to view the practical impact of executive function deficits in two general categories:
- Specific academic challenges like writing essays, remembering what is read (comprehension), memorizing information, and completing complex math; and,
- Essential related skills like organization, getting started on and finishing work, remembering tasks and due dates, completing homework and long-term projects in a timely manner, processing information in an efficient and timely manner, having good time awareness and management, using self-talk to direct behavior, using weekly reports, and planning ahead for the future.
Unfortunately, on the surface, failure to perform these tasks looks like a simple choice was made to be lazy and not complete the work.
However, that's not the case; a neurological deficit makes these tasks extremely difficult for students with attention deficits. Consequently, parents and teachers must always keep in mind that, first and foremost, this is a neurological problem, not laziness.
Let's take a more in-depth look at just one element of executive function-deficits in working memory and recall-and their impact on school work.
Poor Working Memory and Recall
Contrary to conventional wisdom, researchers report that working memory skills are a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ scores. This explains why children with ADHD and high IQs may still struggle in school. Deficits in working memory and recall negatively affect these students in several areas:
1. Affects the here and now
- a.) limited working memory capacity
- b.) weak short-term memory (holding information in mind for roughly twenty seconds;capacity-roughly the equivalent of seven numbers)
- c.) forgetfulness-can't keep several things in mind
- - have difficulty remembering and following instructions
- - have difficulty memorizing math facts, spelling words, and dates
- - have difficulty performing mental computation such as math in one's head
- - forget one part of a problem while working on another segment
- - have difficulty paraphrasing or summarizing
- - have difficulty organizing and writing essays
- a.) difficulty recalling the past
- - do not learn easily from past behavior (limited hindsight)
- - repeat misbehavior
- a.) difficulty holding events in mind
- b.) difficulty using their sense of time to prepare for upcoming events and the future
- - have difficulty judging the passage of time accurately
- - do not accurately estimate how much time it will take to finish a task; consequently, they may not allow enough time to complete work
- a.) diminished sense of self-awareness
- - do not easily examine or change their own behavior
- a.) students live in the present-focus on the here and now
- b.) less likely to talk about time or plan for the future
- - have difficulty projecting lessons learned in the past, forward into the future (limited foresight)
- - have difficulty preparing for the future
Many students with ADD or ADHD have impaired working memory and slow processing speed, which are important elements of executive function. Not surprisingly, these skills are critical for writing essays and working math problems.
Research studies by Mayes and Calhoun and more recently by Katusic have identified written expression as a major learning problem among students with ADHD (65-67 percent). Consequently, writing essays, drafting book reports or answering questions on tests or homework is often very challenging for these students.
For example, when writing essays, students often have difficulty holding ideas in mind, acting upon and organizing ideas, quickly retrieving grammar, spelling and punctuation rules from long-term memory, manipulating all this information, remembering ideas to write down, organizing the material in a logical sequence, and then reviewing and correcting errors.
Since learning is relatively easy for most of us, sometimes we forget just how complex seemingly simple tasks really are, for example memorizing multiplication tables or working a math problem. For example, when a student works on a math problem, he must fluidly move back and forth between analytical skills and several levels of memory (working, short-term, and long-term memory).
With word problems, he must hold several numbers and questions in mind while he decides how to work a problem. Next he must delve into long-term memory to find the correct math rule to use for the problem. Then he must hold important facts in mind while he applies the rules and shifts information back and forth between working and short-term memory to work the problem and determine the answer.
To further complicate matters, other serious conditions may co-occur with ADD and ADHD.
According to the recent landmark National Institute of Mental Health MTA study on ADHD, two thirds of children with ADHD have at least one other coexisting problem, such as depression or anxiety. Accommodating students with complex cases of attention deficit disorder is critical! These children are at greater risk than their peers for a multitude of school problems, for example, failing a grade, skipping school, suspension, expulsion, and sometimes, dropping out of school and not going to college.”
As a parent of three children with executive function issues, I have dealt with this issue firsthand. There are no easy answers. As a parent, you need to help your child and make them understand that you always have their back and do what you can to alleviate their stress.
Correspond with their teachers, preferably by email. Emails can tell you a lot about the teacher. Will they be supportive or are they causing harm to your child? If they are causing harm, you may have to remove your child from the situation. The child has enough problems without adding anxiety and depression. One solution can ask for another teacher. Sometimes that can make a huge difference.
For example one teacher my child G had was not patient at all. She would call me up at the office yelling that G hadn’t turned in an assignment and G had “promised” she would. I really don’t know what she expected me to do, as I was at work and it was 9:00 in the morning. If this teacher realized G had a problem, she should have referred her for an evaluation for an IEP. At the time G was on a 504.
However, this teacher eventually left due to migraines. The new teacher worked with G and I never got any more screaming phone calls, just positive feedback. She was awesome!
Sometimes you may have to change schools if the staff is uncooperative. You may have to instigate or revise an IEP. You may have to find a special school or class for your child. You may need to ask for an aide, an academic coach or a mentor to check in with your child to make sure they have their assignments written down and they have all the materials they need before they go home. They should check in with them in the morning to make sure all the work gets turned in.
Keep in mind that if your child has an IEP and they are getting failing grades, then they are not receiving FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). According to the legal definition, FAPE (according to the Rowley Standard) is receiving education that enables the child to pass from grade to grade. If our child is not passing, then it may be time to hire an advocate or a lawyer.