Why are so many bright students struggling in school? Here’s the surprisingly common answer.
The root of learning difficulties for most kids, says Vogel, vice president of Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring in Chicago and San Francisco and director of Vine Academy, isn’t a lack of intelligence, parental support, or effort. It’s poorly developed executive functioning skills. Experts think of these as the set of mental skills needed to plan, prioritize, and organize tasks and information. Parents tend simply to think, “My kid is struggling to keep up in school” or “My kid doesn’t know how to study” or “My kid is disorganized.”
Here she talks about why executive functioning skills are so important to success in school and beyond and what parents can do to help their kids develop them.
Executive function isn’t a new thing. We’re just getting a deeper understanding about why some people succeed in the classroom (or the world of work) and others don’t. There’s been a great deal of research in the last few years that helps us understand what’s going on and what we can do to help otherwise bright kids who aren’t succeeding in school.
We used to think that success in school or success at work was all about intelligence. You were either bright or not so bright, and there wasn’t much you could do if you weren’t. But that didn’t really explain why so many highly intelligent people still weren’t performing the way we expected.
Then we blamed the parents. For example, we thought they weren’t providing a language-rich environment for their kids. But that didn’t explain why so many kids whose parents were reading to them every night and giving them lots of attention were still disorganized or couldn’t write a paper or couldn’t get their schoolwork in on time.
Most of what we think of as learning is all about input: remembering and understanding what you’ve heard or read, taking in key facts and information. Many of our brightest kids are masters of this part of learning. They easily absorb important events in history, scientific principles, new words. Yet they still struggle in school.
Executive function is all about output. When someone struggles with executive functioning, they typically take in information and ideas just fine. But when it comes to explaining what they’ve absorbed to others or on a test or applying it to a new situation, the product is often scattered. Turning raw information into a logically organized essay or making a simple plan of action becomes really challenging.
Executive functioning problems are common, but often go unnoticed, in gifted kids. These kids are often amazing at memorizing information (input) but struggle with output. They absorb facts, trivia, and details of what they’ve read or heard like sponges. But they’re not always developing the executive function techniques that they’ll need when they hit more demanding courses in high school or college. Someone who’s able to memorize the details of a lecture right as she hears it, for example, is less likely to learn the good note-taking skills she’ll need when the lectures become much more advanced later on. These kids often hit a wall when they switch to middle school, high school, or college. Without the critical skills they need to take notes, study, and organize their time and thoughts, some of them even start to question if they’re really as “smart” as they once thought.
Writing is especially tough for many kids because everything about it has to do with executive functioning, with output—taking the information that’s inside your head and communicating it in an organized and structured way on paper. Kids who are weak in executive functioning often have amazing ideas that they desperately want to share. But when it comes to actually getting those ideas down, they often don’t know where to start, how to organize the information, or how to break down an idea into a fully formulated argument.
One reason kids struggle with writing is that it’s a complex skill that usually requires a lot of practice with a lot of feedback. A teacher with 20 or 30 students isn’t set up to give each kid the kind of feedback he needs. She just doesn’t have the time. And the longer you wait to develop these crucial writing skills, the harder it becomes.
Fortunately, executive function isn’t a natural talent. It’s a set of skills that can be taught and learned. We teach kids how to take notes, how to get physically organized, how to set up and follow a schedule, how to study, and how to write.
The key is to break everything down into smaller parts. As tutors, we might start with just note-taking, for example. We’ll have a student write down just one idea after reading a section of text. Later we’ll have her expand the number of things she writes down. Then we’ll work on how to choose a single word that summarizes each note. Even later, we’ll work on how to use symbols, abbreviations, and other tricks to take more concise notes. Each of these skills is taught one step at a time, until effective note-taking is second nature to her.
One early warning sign of executive functioning problems is when your son or daughter has trouble following multi-step directions. While five-step directions are going to challenge any kid, a child who’s 9 or 10 should be able to handle instructions such as “go into the closet in Mira’s room, pull out the blue duffel bag, and grab your batting gloves.” The reason is that working memory—the space where you hold things in your consciousness while actively using them—is the space where executive functioning takes place. If your child is weak in that area, which can be seen with these types of instructions, executive functioning problems are highly likely.
Executive functioning problems in girls often go unnoticed because girls tend to be more physically organized. If something doesn’t come easily to boys, they’re more likely to just say, “I can’t do this.” Or “This is stupid.” Girls are more likely to try to compensate silently. They’ll write down their assignments. They’ll follow instruction, without resisting. They’ll take notes for hours. The problem comes, though, when they don’t know how to take all those organized things and really learn them for a test, or how to make time for studying, or how to take concise notes. Physical organization is just one executive functioning skill, and some girls can hide other missing skills behind it.
Poorly developed executive function skills are common in students with ADD, but there are also kids who have perfect attention who still haven’t developed these skills. Students with ADD—just as anyone struggling with executive functioning—very commonly have trouble with their working memory, or what we think of as space for thinking. Whatever the underlying issue, these are needed and teachable skills for all students.
The #1 question I get from parents is, “What can I do to help?” The answer depends on the situation, but there are some simple things you can do to help your child develop these skills. You can help your child get physically organized. Just having a binder set up for homework, with a checklist they follow, can give them a system for finding things. It’s also important to build consistent household routines, including a schedule before and after school. It shouldn’t be rigid, but it should stick to a set order: first soccer practice, say, then math homework, then a snack, then science homework. Work with your child to come up with a checklist of things to get through each morning and each afternoon. Do it together for 15 days or so until they’ve mastered it. The goal is to get your kid to go on autopilot so he doesn’t have to think about what’s next. He just does it. Most parents find that very helpful and quickly see that their kids thrive in a well-ordered and predictable environment.
Rewards or punishment don’t work. The problem is that these are self-regulation skills, so the carrot and stick aren’t effective. Nagging also doesn’t work. These skills are learned when kids are provided a model, guided through it step by step, and given plenty of time to practice until mastery is gained.
One of my biggest success stories is a kid who was an executive function disaster when he first came to us in the middle of 8th grade. He’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met, but his working memory was very weak compared to his other skills. It took a couple of years to convince him to study every night, even if only in short bursts, instead of waiting until just before a test or a big assignment was due. He’s a senior in high school now, excelling in all AP and honors classes, and he doesn’t need me anymore.
Problems with executive function aren’t all that rare. Every child needs help. Schools, especially middle schools, should be using school-wide systems and curriculum to help students develop these skills, but most don’t. Most of us as adults are still working on these skills, too. We just call them productivity. The good news is that it’s never too late to develop or improve these skills.
- Amanda Vogel is the Vice President of Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring, based in Chicago and San Francisco.
- Find a tutor.
- Find an educational therapist who specializes in executive function.
- 4 steps that can help you turn a disorganized, struggling student into a happy achiever