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Intro to Executive Function

January 11, 2010 · Filed Under Behavior, Parents' Corner, Teachers' Corner, Tutors' Corner · Comment 

When last we left our hero, she was about to attend a workshop on executive function (’way back before the holiday season)…..

Actually, I did attend the workshop, and have been rolling the information around in my brain since then, trying to distill it into manageable bits to share with you. The online workshop I attended was “Who’s Running the Show? Executive Dysfunction and How to Help the Disorganized Child” by Laurie Dietzel. All in all, Dr. Dietzel confirmed many things I’ve been thinking for years, gave me considerably more professional vernacular to use, and contributed many ’soundbytes’ that seem like I can use them to help parents make their advocacy cases for their children, and with school personnel who aren’t quite convinced that this is a real problem for some students.

How familiar does this sound to you? Does your student:

  • finish homework but forget to turn it in?
  • have problems with transitions?
  • make a lot of seemingly ‘careless’ errors that aren’t caught by proofreading?
  • need many more reminders and prompts than most his/her age?
  • have trouble remembering directions, possessions, assignments?
  • demonstrate wildly inconsistent performance on academic tasks, doing A+ work one day and failing work the next on the same type of assignments?

This actually sounds like a number of the students that I work with in my tutoring business, and several more that I know in their personal lives. Dr. Dietzel is convinced that they suffer from what she is calling Executive Dysfunction. That translates to an impaired ability to select, sustain and guide their own behavior within rules and expectations for the setting and their age level. It’s an impairment of the processes that guide, direct and manage cognitive, behavioral and emotional functions. Executive Function, when working properly, is what allows us to set goals, plan, organize, sequence, and note feedback on our behavior. It’s what helps us try different problem-solving strategies and also what stops us from acting on impulsive ideas. It has to do with memory, accomplishing complex tasks, and making judgments.

Does any of this sound like your student? If so, he or she may be having trouble with executive function. Executive Dysfunction is often comorbid with ADHD and similar concerns, but not limited to that population. It can also occur with learning disabled students, but again is not limited to them. It’s not officially a medical problem yet, though this presenter indicated that doctors responsible for naming and creating diagnostic criteria are considering including it in the next reference that is due to come out in a few more years.

So the long and the short is that right this very moment, your child’s school or teacher is quite likely to tell you that no such disorder exists, since it’s not in the reference books. They are likely to tell you that your child is lazy or inattentive, hyperactive, ADHD, or learning disabled. In many districts, they are likely to offer little in the way of tangible help. However, stay tuned! I’m planning to revisit this subject again soon and will share some of the strategies that Dr. Dietzel recommended to help these individuals. There is hope, and there are things you can do at home to minimize and compensate for the problem.

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