Is Executive Functioning the Missing Link for Gifted Students?

Dean’s Story

If you’re the parent of a gifted child, the following story may sound familiar: Dean was a bright child from the very start. At three, he could correctly identify every Thomas the Tank Engine character who had ever appeared on the show.  At four, he figured out how to read on his own and by five, his obsession with the U.S. presidents meant he could easily recount the name, birthday, and multiple interesting facts about each one.  At seven, he memorized all of the chemical elements just for fun. Dean enjoyed reading the same books over and over again and reciting detailed facts about each one, demonstrating his voracious appetite for literature.

When Dean was eleven, his parents were puzzled to find that he couldn’t keep up at school. His papers were a mess, riddled with dog-ears.  He brought home three missing assignment slips in one week. While he’d previously aced quizzes and tests, they found that he was more likely to get a “D” when he wasn’t getting an “A.”  Dean would  complete his homework in record time, but it became a mystery as to how his teacher could decipher his illegible work.  His mom struggled to understand why her bright son was struggling at school.  The answer: Dean’s executive functioning skills were lacking.

 

WHAT IS EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING?

When we think of traditional learning, we think of taking in facts and developing skills. These are both examples of input. In Dean’s case, this was his strength(his father has often described his mind as a “steel trap”).  Executive functioning (“EF”) skills are opposite of input: they include everything that has to do with acting on knowledge, or output. This means that “EF” includes organizing papers, writing down assignments, taking notes, studying, and even writing with structure. It was the output that Dean struggled with. Information went into his mind easily and thoroughly, and he had no trouble understanding what he was learning. When trying to share that information or get through a homework list, however, the work product came out scattered and unorganized.

 

IS THIS COMMON IN GIFTED CHILDREN?

“Every executive functioning skill can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered. The key to success is learning these skills before they are critically needed for in more difficult classes.”

Not all gifted children struggle with executive functioning, but gifted children are more likely to encounter these struggles than other students.  Why?  To begin, gifted children like Dean initially find learning and school to be quite easy, sometimes even boring.   When it comes to developing executive functioning skills, however, there’s a significant consequence to this lack of challenge.  If a child can easily understand his lessons, memorize key details, and recall them later, there’s no need to develop a set of study skills.

Justin, a former student now in high school, found this out the hard way. He breezed through elementary and middle school, consistently earning A’s without studying.  This also meant that Justin wasn’t practicing these skills.  Even though his developing brain was primed and ready to learn skills such as studying, , he wasn’t getting opportunities to practice, hone, or master them. When he transitioned to high school, he encountered a rigorous American history course, having no idea how to approach it. For the first time, Justin found himself floundering in school.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to studying.  If Susie can memorize all her assignments throughout grade school, never needing to write them down, she misses the opportunity to learn and practice assignment management.  If Alex can fly through his homework each night in twenty minutes, he never needs to learn to prioritize and organize his time.  If Cheryl memorizes the details of a lecture as she hears it, she’s not likely to learn good note-taking skills she’ll need later when they become more advanced.  Having a talent for taking in information can actually hamper the development of these output skills.

 

DON’T WAIT FOR DISASTER

Every executive functioning skill can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered.  The key to success is learning these skills before they are critically needed for in more difficult classes.  If you plan for your gifted child to take a heavy course load in the future, make sure that he’s learning executive functioning skills early.  The middle school years (grades five to eight) offer an ideal window for this.  Even if your child doesn’t “need” to write everything down or study for his or her current classes, a tutor or teacher can help get these habits firmly established, setting the stage for future challenges.  At a minimum, every child should learn to organize school papers and materials, track and prioritize assignments, take notes on textbook reading, study effectively (as opposed to simply “looking over” material), and write structured responses and paragraphs.  These skills are equally as important as solving equations or punctuating sentences!

Problems with executive functioning provide another reason for parents to work with their child’s teachers and school to ensure that she is being adequately challenged.  “Too easy” is a problem; it should never be taken lightly. Children who are not challenged miss out on the opportunity to practice critical executive functioning skills.  They are also more likely to become risk-adverse, hesitating to tackle challenges that are out of their comfort zone.  Children whose intellectual limits are regularly and appropriately challenged are children who are developing strong skills, in terms of both input and output!