It was great to go to this year’s Special Education Conference on September 22, 2014 featuring Peg Dawson, author of Smart but Scattered. As a parent, I appreciated learning about the developing human brain and its impact on our executive skills. The challenge of the day was to look at the fact that everyone needs executive skills, but do our schools outright identify and teach them? My daughter is edging on that wonderful rainbow we call spectrum disorders, so I was keenly listening for insights and strategies.
Each student needs the ability to plan, stay focused, be flexible, remember what the teacher said, understand time, persist to complete a task, manage emotions… and learn the curriculum. Those are the main executive function categories. The task of writing is the most intense skill in that it combines multiple executive functions. That explains why special needs kids have such difficulty and are often identified by their writing skills.
When does the brain mature enough to learn to manage emotions, understand time or just assess and reflect on oneself? Check out this link and use the slider which shows a yearly MRI of the developing brain. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/09/15/health/20080915-brain-development.html
The prefrontal cortex is one of the last areas to mature. Until it does, children lack the ability to judge risks. I don’t think that’s a surprise to most parents. In a separate study, researchers decided to MRI the brain activity of teenagers and mature adults as they responded to a number of questions. One of the questions was: “What do you think of mountain biking down ten flights of stairs?” The teenage brain lit up like a Christmas tree. It looked like fun, exciting and appealing. The adult brain didn’t…. To an adult it’s a no brainer.
There are functions we can identify and encourage, other times we just need to be our kids’ frontal lobes, as odd as that may seem, for our sanity and their safety. The challenge is to do this in a way they appreciate. Little Jeffrey is not going to appreciate his name repeated in various tones of disapproval, speed or intensity. He’s going to go home and ask his parents if they can change his name!
According to Peg Dawson, formal assessments only go so far in identifying executive skill deficits. Informal ‘life questions’ about homework, chores, following directions and organizational skills will help identify the child’s weaknesses much faster. And don’t forget to ask the child if it’s hard for them to do certain tasks. Too often we think we know the whole story when we don’t.
Once you identify a weakness you can practice age appropriate strategies so that everyone can improve. She stressed that progress is measured in years, not days. There are no silver bullet strategies, just keep learning and trying.
Positive, respectful, authentic motivation and a personal relationship with the educator or parent will inspire the child to come up with their own reflections and solutions. It reminded me of Andy Crouch’s talk on power building so that both parties are doubly blessed by the interaction.
I titled this blog with a statement that Peg used to challenge the group. Often ‘flippant’ statements like ‘I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care’ have many underlying layers. But could there be more truth in the class clown’s statement based on our new found knowledge of the brain? She went on to say that tests show ADHD people have low levels of dopamine. Dopamine in the brain enhances the level of interest a person attaches to stimulus. People who release dopamine at a lower rate might find it more difficult to work up the enthusiasm to act on stimuli they don’t find naturally appealing. So you get the ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ responses. Are they being a ‘smart-ass’ or are they perhaps giving you an honest answer? Is it possible that they really do not know the answer because they have not been able to stay focused long enough to retain the information?
We have much to learn about our brains and how an executive function weakness impacts us all. The good news is that generally as adults what we lack in one area is compensated for in other areas. So my lack of working memory has caused me to be more organized with my personal items. It also makes me re-think some of my own unsuccessful ‘pushing the rope’ strategies with my daughter. We are learning together. Our kids will take an ever evolving path to becoming happy, self-sufficient adults.
Peg had a lot of interesting information and strategies in the workshop and I’m looking forward to reading her book. Attending the conference not only helped me to better understand my daughter and the challenges she faces, but led me to be more optimistic and hopeful for my family’s future.
Perhaps exploring executive functions will help motivate you to develop better approaches for the people who have unique learning needs in your life —and then be doubly blessed!