The way learning and living is complicated when we have trouble with organization

Uhoh, missing assignments!

Over the last week my work has been with students who are warned of impending failing grades.  Teachers report that they are missing a lot of assignments for the semester, and the student explains that the assignments were omitted in order to keep up the pace required of them across all their courses.  Kids with EDF will often need more time and support with the planning, enacting the steps, and checking their work than is allowed for the completion of it. Overwhelmed by the pace and volume of the work they are to do, they drop assignments which are not due the next day, especially demanding of their executive functions, or either boring or difficult.  Many times the problem is interpreted as laziness, or a discipline issue by the time it comes to light.  Teachers do not routinely let parents know of their child’s missing work until prompted to do so either at interim time or because the parent asks for it.  The kid hides the missing assignments even from herself, at a loss about what to do, and pressed to get on with the rest of the pile of assignments befoer her.  So, what to do?

     First, see the issue coming.  Kids with EDF need extra time and executive function support on all assignments, including tests.
Schools find it relatively easy to give them extra time on the tests, but have greater resistance to allowing it for classroom work, homework, and projects, etc.  At the same time, the EDF student is likely to need more iterations of practice with concepts in order to learn them than do their neurotypical peers.  At some point or other this tension will cause a jam.
      Second, set up reasonable accommodations like a predictable space and time for taking tests using extra time so that there doesn’t need to be a scramble about it every time there is an assessment.  A place in the library, for example, set aside for test takers with an adult handy before and after school, and throughout the day.   Reduce the student’s schedule wherever possible so that a free period opens up in the day to be used (supervised) for getting assignments done.  Reduce the number of inessential assignments for EDF students at least.
     Third, each teacher communicate what is missing at the end of each week so that weekend time can be devoted to catching up.  The student should also develop the habit of planning weekend time for this purpose and assign work to that period as they go through the week and encounter something that will need more time than they have that evening.  Having a place to put the work they don’t have time to complete is a whole lot better than simply dropping it, and it allows the parent or other supervisory adult to lend positive rather than punitive support e.g. “is there anything that you need to move into the catch-up time on Saturday from tonight’s list?” or  “lets make a note of what you need to move this assignment forward: to understand the process better? to have time to reread the text?”

The idea is to take the problem out of shame and misunderstanding and bring it into the light where planning and support can take the place of friction and punishment.

John is struggling with the problem that his old methods of approaching assignments are inadequate for the kind he gets in high school, and that there are ways – new to him – of doing things which are more efficient in dealing with the larger volume of information and greater complexity of analysis required of him now. His habit is to use the old methods and blame everyone else when they don’t work, while feeling worse and worse about himself. To some extent this is because he has identified being “smart” with not needing to have any help, or learn to use any new tools.
The awkwardness of learning a new way of doing something is threatening to him, and he cannot suppress the feeling of irritation and panic long enough to learn that he can do it. For an example, think about when you learned to drive a standard shift car, and hopped all over the parking lot feeling the jerk and stall, the ineptitude where you were used to control and smoothness. It takes a sense of humor to get through that, and you have to maintain that humor while everything you are going through tugs you toward frustration and anger.
You were glad when it was time to take a break, and get back to your regular life, in which things went better, as a rule. Now imagine hitting that kind of emotional speed bump many times a day! What kind of attitude might you develop?

I’ve neglected this blog for long enough! Going forward, I am going to put at least weekly stories of my adventures with Executive Dysfunction, as I work with those who suffer with it, to find understanding of the forces at work, and alternative methods and tools for getting better results. I invite you to add your own thoughts, concerns and stories. I will not use the real names of my students, replacing any male ones with “John” and any female ones with “Jane.”
The idea is to share and reflect, not to identify and critique.

The Discipline Question

Most of the teenagers I meet because they are referred to me for improvement of their executive functioning are “in trouble” of some kind because their behavior in school and out of it is seen as irresponsibility, or an attempt to get away with something. It’s understandable that teachers and parents would get the feeling that something in the student with EDF’s behavior is amiss. Given their spikes of ability, their areas of difficulty seem perplexing. The first judgment folks tend to make is that the kid is disrespectful, lazy, uncaring, not motivated, rebellious ….you get the idea. The response is to punish, as in the list of demerits in the post I made before this one, and when the punishments don’t work – that is because a change in the pattern of behavior – the student is expelled as a person not worth the school’s time and effort. In the case of the boy with the impressive list of demerits, and the one discussed in this post, misdiagnosing the trouble as a failure of character led to rejecting the kid and this can have terrible consequences. I write here because if we can see what’s going on for these kids differently, and apply the diagnostic measures necessary to accurately understand what is going on, we can adopt a course of response that leads to much happier and healthier outcomes.

I don’t mean to suggest that these kids are either incapable of, or unwilling to, engage in behavior deserving of a scolding, however I am saying that when achievement is below what we might expect from someone’s age and intelligence, the problem is often rooted in difficulties with mobilizing and using his resources smoothly and with efficiency. Often his less than honest moments derive from the impulse to hide the misstep, and acting on that before he’s had time for thought.

Reading the report card comments on his work by one such student’s teachers, it is evident that they can see where his areas of struggle lie. His Pre-Calculus teacher, comments that “In analyzing a particular mathematical context, [student] is not always sure which of his store of learned operations and processes to bring to bear.” This comment is exactly my point. Not only is the boy not sure of which operation or process to apply, he has trouble sorting it out from similar knowledge chunks, bringing the needed one to the fore, and then setting it in motion with the new learning even if the process is firmly in long-term memory.

All this happens fairly unconsciously for most of us, and fails if we haven’t really done the learning, because we deployed our attention elsewhere. Explanations of our failure involve choice of one kind or another. The Student with EDF’s choices are made more impulsively, more incompletely, and faster than is the case with most of us. He’s had the experience many times of deploying something not quite right so he is hesitant to commit to the one to use now, lest it be inaccurate or inefficient, and thus embarrassing. It doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t learned what he needs to use, although that may be part of the problem here and there. He’s hesitant to claim he knows something when he might not be able to prove it in the spotlight. The Pre-Calculus teacher notes that “Many of the concepts do not come easily for him and he has trouble remembering ideas and techniques from the past.” Similarly his English teacher says “…when I asked him the definitions of some words I hadn’t seen before in his work, he faltered and mentioned he used a thesaurus to find them” seeming to conclude that there was something fishy about the student’s use of those words.

The observations of both teachers here focus on instances when the student’s retrieval of information failed him. Additionally, when he does take a risk (using words from a thesaurus, for example) he may make a simple verbatim substitution, not taking shades of meaning into account. When he doesn’t nail down the meaning of new words he uses in an English assignment and sputters when put on the spot, it tends to raise a question of his integrity but an attribution of the matter to a failure of conscience is not what is happening. It is an example of how EDF plays out in his thought process, skipping connections and meanings that would not elude the mind of a person without the disorder.

I’ll leave it there for now and talk next time about more constructive than punitive responses to failures of EDF in school. I want to leave it there for now in the hope that readers might imagine what they might do differently if they understood a person with EDF’s behavior in this way – then we can talk about it!

19 demerits for cutting classes, study group, study hall and afternoon study hall

6 demerits for skipping Saturday detentions

4 demerits for unauthorized cell phone use

3 demerits for throwing copper in chemistry

1 demerit for spitballs

1 demerit for wrestling in the hall

1 demerit for talking in detention

7 demerits for being excessively disruptive in classes

1 demerit for insulting another student

2 demerits for class tardies

5 demerits for inappropriate use of technology

Hi Kristin,

Thank you for your excellent website.  I wasn’t able to find a link on how to paste a question on the EDF blog, so I’m writing to you instead 🙂

I work with (supervise) a woman that I suspect may have some executive dysfunction.  As a side note, her son has diagnosed ADHD and Tourette’s.  I am searching for some ideas on how to work with her more effectively.  She is certainly intelligent and often surprises me with her insight.

The issues of concern involve her not always “connecting the dots”, low productivity and the time it takes for her to complete tasks, and lack of follow-through.  A simple example, her cube was a disaster and I know from experience that she doesn’t work well in those conditions – she starts to spin her wheels and becomes totally unproductive.  I asked her a couple of times to clean her workspace and saw no progress.  In speaking to my mentor (because I was frustrated at what appeared to be a lack of respect and follow-through, and needing to talk it through with someone wiser than me!), she suggested to me that perhaps my employee has some executive dysfunction.  I did some Internet research and wow was that helpful!  As luck would have it, the emloyeed asked for help and we then together sorted through all the piles of paper, placed like items in folders, and grouped the folders into a few major subject groups.  It wasn’t that she was unwilling to do the task, she really couldn’t seem to get started, and had difficulty with the organization process.

Anyway, I’m struggling with how I might more effectively supervise this woman in a way that she doesn’t find demeaning or micro-managing.  Do you have any links you could direct me to?  I’ve worked very hard to develop a good working relationship with her, and we work well as a team.  However, sometimes it seems that very small occurrences (what she considers lapses on my part, such as forgetting to cc her on an email) easily threaten the relationship.  Perhaps that is the sensitivity piece of the ED.  It is very important to her that she not be left out of anything, and that she receives credit for any good work she does.  I’m aware of this and do it to the best of my ability, but not perfectly – which she is quick to point out to me, with quite a bit of emotion.

Before I ramble any further, I should send this email off and see if you have any time to help.  Thank you so much.

1. Support all faculty in being competent with and attentive to email communications, especially at times when students are likely to be doing homework such as evenings Sunday – Thursday
2. Support all faculty in Posting all assignments and the materials needed for them (worksheets, notes, readings, etc.) as well as due dates, on a generally accessible web site (like
3. Maintain a similar spot where students and their parents can check whether assignments have been turned in.
4. Replace the almost instinctive belief in student laziness with its opposite, and communicate actively to students that you believe they can and want to learn whatever subject you teach.
5. Arrange to have most student work done in school, and provide staffed “study hall” time in which students can complete their “homework” prior to leaving school for the day.