Executive Functioning – Thinking about Thinking

My 8-year old son was recently diagnosed by a psychologist with an ‘Executive Functioning’ disorder. I had never heard of the term, and have spent the past month reading voraciously, trying to make sense on what this means.

We decided to pursue testing because of his emotional outbursts at school, conflict that he finds himself in with his teacher and his friends, and his general disinterest in learning. Our child has always been an intense, ‘spirited’ child (I read Mary Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child when he was 4 years old and cried with relief that there was a name for this intensity, as well as excellent strategies to manage it), but we thought his emotional intensity would calm as he matured. This was not the case, and sure enough, grade 3 has been tumultuous. But we were most concerned with his disinterest in school and learning – this is a kid whose emotional intensity is coupled with a passionate, enthusiastic and curious spirit, with a deep love of learning. Our concern amplified when we caught a glimpse of this spirit dimming.

Executive Functioning Disorder is a learning disability that affects the ability to plan and act in a goal-oriented manner. There are eight pillars that define Executive Functioning: 1. Initiation, 2. Flexibility, 3. Attention, 4. Organization, 5. Planning 6. Working Memory 7. Self-Awareness, and 8. Managing Emotions. The best book that I read about Executive Functioning so far is No Mind Left Behind: Understanding and Fostering Executive Control by Adam Cox. Everyone has different levels of competency in each of the pillars, and our son has some serious gaps in many of the pillars (especially 2, 4, 7, and 8).

Through my reading and learning, I have been challenged to think differently about emotions. Before this, I separated emotions from thinking as two completely separate internal processes. I assumed that emotional outbursts came from an emotional/mental health challenge, and not from a ‘learning disability’. In reality, emotions and thinking are deeply intertwined. Self-awareness, which is critical for emotional management and self-regulation, is one of the pillars of Executive Functioning. While I have always seen self-awareness as a sign of emotional strength, it is actually a thinking process; the ability to think objectively about yourself and to understand why you do what you do (or don’t do what you are supposed to do).

This has certainly challenged how I interpret events in my son’s life. For example, he struggles with resolving conflict in his friendships, which makes is a source of great sadness for him. While my interpretation has always been that he can’t resolve conflict because he is stubborn, hot-headed and won’t take any responsibility for his part in the conflict (lack of self-awareness), I now have a different take on it. He creates a fixed vision of what he wants to happen in his friendship (a serious lack of flexibility), and any change to his vision causes him anxiety. Once the conflict begins, he lacks the planning skills to think through steps of resolving the conflict. He also lacks self-awareness, which means that he gets stuck in his emotions.

So what to do? The good news is that Executive Functioning is a skill that can be taught and learned over time. While it may come naturally to some, the skill is actually learning a process of ‘two-tiered’ thinking or ‘meta-cognition’ (thinking about thinking). For example, to be successful in completing a complex project, you aren’t just thinking about the project, but the planning process is ‘thinking about thinking’ – what needs to get done and how, when, where etc. Visualization is a critical strategy to teach, where you visualize what steps are involved in completing the project. Visualization can be used as a key strategy to strengthen self-awareness – in No Mind Left Behind, Adam Cox suggests a strategy where you ask the child to pretend their life is a movie and they are main actor. Ask the child to play back (visualize) a scene from their life (for example a conflict situation) and analyze why the actor (himself) is doing what he is doing. What is causing him to make that decision? What is he thinking and feeling? Then ask the child to rewrite the ending, solving the problem.

I’ve been reading about the importance of character strengths such as grit, self-control, and resiliency, as key to life success and happiness. I wish that our schools focused on teaching children these new skills, instead of memorizing times tables (I was in shock when my son came home with his homework instruction to memorize his times tables – is this the best use of our time and energy? Why is this necessary? Questions for a different blog post…). In the meantime, I will continue to read, learn and do whatever I can to support my son with gaining the skills he needs to success and be happy in life. I hope what we can do is enough.