This is the third segment in a series about executive functioning (EF): our “5 R Solutions for Everyday Living.” In this episode, we discuss how and why “Reduce” can alleviate problems with EF.
I love this R Solution because it can address all six clusters in Dr. Brown’s Model of Executive Functioning (Activation, Focus, Effort, Emotion, Memory, and Action)! The goal here is to help the student reduce to a single point of focus, which will help the student focus and sustain attention, prioritize, reduce overwhelm and frustration, activate with a starting and ending pointing, etc. There are so many strategies (too many to list in one short article) that really work…so I hope the takeaway is that when in doubt, reduce, reduce, reduce. Below is a list of 5 strategies that really work for students, parents, and teachers:
1. Set a timer and work on one task for a set amount of time. The amount of time will vary depending on the student and the task ,and you may have to experiment to identify the optimal number of minutes (could be 20 could be 55). This strategy reduces attention and productivity to a single point of focus, helps activate and prioritize, reduces stress and overwhelm, reduces load on working memory, chunks larger tasks, and provides a method for self-monitoring and time management. This can be especially useful for ”studying,” “practicing,” and completion of long-term projects. For example, if I say, “study your test.” What exactly does this mean? Setting a timer provides a quantitative measure for a qualitative task. It also promises relief (it will be over in 20 minutes) for mentally fatigued and exhausted students.
2. Declutter. Remove visual, auditory, and tactile clutter in the the learning environment, workspace, bag, folder, planner, desk, room, etc. If the mind is ”cluttered” or disorganized, the environment must be orderly. Also, if you notice increased clutter in the student’s space or belongings, it is a good indication they are overwhelmed.
3. Tighten up your Message: When giving instructions or directions, eliminate unnecessary and only loosely related information, words, and directives. In other words, talk less and stick to key actions and objects. Avoid overtaxing their working memory, diverting their focus, and overwhelming their senses.
4. Give Big Picture (or punch line) First. When giving instructions or directions provide a clear idea of where the activity is headed, when will it be done, and what is the point so that the student can focus on key details, prioritize, and maximize their worming memory capacity.
5. Set SMART Goals. SMART GOALS are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable, and Time-specific. I love SMART goals because they help direct focus, break larger goals into smaller goals, set timelines, reduce overwhelm, and help students self-monitor progress. I also love setting SMART goals with students because the aspect of the SMART goal they struggle with, reveals their specific area of executive dysfunction. For example, if the goal is identified as “Work on my Science Project,” I might suspect this student has trouble prioritizing, planning, chunking, sequencing, and self-monitoring.
If you like these strategies, pick one or to work on this week, and see how they go for you. We recommend you don’t try all 5 at once. After all, the point of these is to reduce – not to overload yourself! – Dr. Katen
A Series on Executive Functioning
This is the second segment in a series about executive functioning (EF): our “5 R Solutions for Everyday Living.” In this episode, we discuss how and why to “Reframe and Redefine” problems with EF.
Before we can implement an effective solution in any situation, we must first accurately define the problem. Before we can help a student with any struggle, we must first identify what is really going on. Once we correctly call it what it is, we begin the process of solving the problem without blame and shame and with accountability.
For example, there is a common belief that procrastinators are simply perfectionistic, and the fear of not being perfect interferes with their ability to get started and get it done. There is also a common belief that procrastination is deliberate avoidance. While these might be true sometimes, often there is a different reason—a skill deficit.
So if perfectionism and deliberate avoidance are not the causes…what is going on?! In many cases, the true culprit is a deficit in executive functioning, and specifically in the area of activation.
Correctly reframing and redefining the root of the problem helps (1) avoid blaming and shaming, (2) sets problem-solving in the right direction, and (3) creates space for accountability and success.
Activation is one subset of EF skills and includes getting started, organizing, prioritizing. A deficit in activation is essentially a broken “start button.”
Obviously, the solution to a broken start button (or deficit in activation) is very different than the solution to deliberate avoidance or perfection anxiety. If the start button does not work properly, then that child’s brain needs an override. The override can be internal, such as panic or strong interest. The override can also be external, such as support from a person or a change in the environment (more on this next time).
Before we can help a student with any problem, we must first accurately reframe and redefine the true nature of the problem. There is always more to a student than what we can observe. Behavior is communication. And… when the root of the behavior is mislabeled, we miss what the behavior is trying to tell us, which often leads to unwarranted blaming, shaming, and continued failures.
A Series on Executive Functioning
We’re excited to present our new Individual Matters: Learning About Learning Podcast & Video Series!
Is your child struggling in school? Is she “refusing” to complete chores at home? Is homework an epic battle every night? Does your child complete the homework but forget to turn it in? Does your child’s desk, bag, and room look like they were hit by a tornado? Are their emotions intense and unpredictable? Do you find yourself referring to them as “lazy”? Perhaps the culprit is executive dysfunction.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll focus on executive functioning (EF), including what it is, how weaknesses in EF manifest at home and school, and how to help your student. These are combined into our 5 R Solutions for Everyday Living (also available at our Individual Matters: Learning About Learning Podcast & Video Series).
A Free Presentation Series for Parents with Students of All Ages
Individual Matters hosts a series of presentations for parents of students of all ages. Join Dr. Katen and other local experts to learn about all things that have to do with learning.
The presentations take place on the FIRST TUESDAY of every month for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. Topics will include:
- Learning Simulations
- ADHD: What is really causing the attention problem?
- Dyslexia and other Learning Disorders
- Auditory and Visual Processing
- Executive Function and Learning
- Learning Styles and Using Strengths to Find Success
- Gifted and Advanced Learners
- Successful Learning Skills: Organization and Homework Strategies
- Autism and Other Social Challenges
- IEPs, 504s, and Advocating for your Child at School
- And many more!
Location: 2530 E. Foresight Circle, Grand Junction, CO 81505
Day/Time: 1st Tuesday of each month, 5:30-7:00pm
If you can make it, please RSVP by email or phone so we can be sure to have enough seats and snacks.
Hope to see you there!
Do you answer “yes” to any of the following questions?
- Are you curious what hidden gifts or talents you possess, but don’t use?
- Do you sense that you learn or perceive the world differently from others?
- Does it feel like you could conquer the world – if only you didn’t have so much anxiety and self-doubt?
- Do you have big wishes/goals, but feel like you’re not educated (or smart) enough to attain them?
- Ever wonder why you experience relationships and social gatherings differently from your family and friends?
- Is school or work a struggle? Boring? Simply a poor “fit”?
- Are you an entrepreneur who wants to fine-tune your role in your business?
- Are you an employee who secretly wants to be an entrepreneur?
- As a mom, do you sense that your child is not performing at their best? Or as happy as they should be?
- Is it hard for you to pay attention, remember things, organize and manage your busy life?
- Do you feel like you’re a smart, creative person who is drowning in a world of checklists, to-dos, and non-stop life maintenance?
Maybe these questions seem like an advertisement for a motivational class or success
seminar. But sometimes, they’re questions that lead individuals to seek a neuropsychological learning evaluation.
A comprehensive, high quality, neuropsychological learning evaluation can help you understand:
- How you think.
- How you learn.
- How you relate to the world.
- Your interests and talents.
- Factors that may be suppressing your performance and happiness.
The goal of this evaluation is not to “diagnose” what is “wrong” with you or your child.
But it is important to identify what issues may be keeping you from functioning your best – and being your happiest. Here’s an analogy we can all relate to:
What would you do if your car did not start in the morning? Would you “give up” – i.e., call your boss your boss and quit your job? Would you “check out” – i.e, climb into the driver’s seat, stare out the windshield, and wait for something miraculous to happen? Would you become “behavioral” – yelling and cursing, maybe hitting your car? Or, would you buckle down and work harder – i.e., push your car to work?
Everyone will respond in his or her own way, depending on temperament, motivation, how many times this has happened before, financial situation, whether a phone is available, and so on…
Of course, the ideal choice would be to call a tow truck and have your car delivered to a mechanic’s shop. There, the mechanic would begin his assessment of the problem by asking you what happened. Based on the history you give, he might continue the diagnosis process by considering your vehicle’s make/model, identifying the type of engine in the car, checking the oil, evaluating whether the engine parts are moving correctly, determining whether any parts are broken or jammed, ensuring the engine is connected to the drive rod, axle, and wheels, etc. He might even check to see if your wheels have air in them – or if the gas tank is empty!
Basically, the mechanic would take a comprehensive look at your vehicle to figure out exactly what is keeping your car from performing the way it was designed.
Similarly, a neuropsychological learning evaluation involves understanding where you are, how you got here, and where you want to go.
Like a mechanic’s shop, the diagnostic process evaluates your brain – its horsepower (IQ), output (e.g., academic achievement, behavioral symptoms, emotions), how various parts work together (e.g., attention, working memory, executive function), and if the engine connects to the rest of the car (e.g., visual, auditory, sensory processing). This is a simplistic comparison, of course, but it illustrates the value of comprehensive diagnostic assessment.
Since every human is unique, a neuropsychological evaluation is arguably much more complex than figuring out why a car won’t start… Especially when one takes into account the influences of emotional, social, and behavioral functioning, the infinite scope of interests, personality, temperament, and family dynamics – and the fact that everyone is unique!
But the overall goals of the two assessments are similar – to figure out how to optimize performance.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma about “psychological testing” that may prevent adults from pursuing a learning assessment – either for themselves, or for their kids.
Over time, this will change, of course. At some point in the future, neuropsychological learning evaluations will become mainstream. Someday, it may be as common as getting vision or hearing checked, having cavities filled, or getting blood pressure checked – just another approach to living longer, healthier, and happier lives.
Few people would disagree with the sayings, “Live life to the fullest,” or “Be the best you can be.” Wouldn’t it be nice to find out what the “fullest” or “best” really means? And then to identify and overcome any obstacles that might stand in your way?
– Dr. Katen
“Live the life you were meant to live!”
©2017 Individual Matters. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share this article with others, as well as to print or post it on other websites, so long as credit is given to the author.
Is your child struggling in school? “Refusing” to complete chores at home? Is homework an epic battle every night? Does your child complete the homework but forget to turn it in? Does your child’s desk, bag, and room look like they were hit by a tornado? Are their emotions intense and unpredictable? Do you find yourself referring to them as “lazy”? Perhaps the reason is a weakness in executive functioning.
If a child were an airplane, executive functions (EFs) would be the pilot. While many parts and processes of a plane may be in good working order, only the pilot can set a destination, take off, steer the plane where it needs to go, address any issues along the way, and land safely. Without a skilled pilot, the plane is nothing more than a complex assembly of hi-tech parts and equipment sitting idly in a hangar.
Similarly, our brains are powerful and complex mechanisms. But without efficient EFs, individuals may find it difficult to achieve even the simplest goals. From fixing a lunch, to cleaning a room, to learning math, to organizing a school project… EFs are needed to set and reach objectives of all dimensions. Without strong EF skills, a child is essentially a plane without a pilot.
Though the term EF is often described as a singular brain function, it is in fact comprised of multiple, interconnected, complex skills and abilities—so much so that even the experts cannot not agree on a single EF model.
Dr. Thomas Brown’s model offers parents and teachers a clear and straightforward way to categorize skills, understand strengths and weaknesses, develop interventions, and scaffold success. Brown divides EF into 6 “clusters”:
- Activation (getting started, organizing, prioritizing)
- Focus (sustaining and shifting attention)
- Effort (regulating attention, sustaining effort, processing speed)
- Emotion (moderating frustration, excitement, anger)
- Memory (juggling and recalling information)
- Action (controlling pace of action and impulsivity)
The key to any successful intervention is to correctly identify the specific area of struggle. Dr. Brown’s model provides a framework for identifying and understanding which area(s) of EF your child might be struggling with so that intervention may be tailored accordingly.
Children do not wake up in the morning and choose to “fail” at life or in school. So why, then, is life so challenging at times? If you answered “yes” to any of the questions at the beginning of this post, it is possible that the culprit is a weakness in executive functioning. – Dr. Katen
©2016 Katrina Katen. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share this article with others, as well as to print or post it on other websites, so long as credit is given to the author.