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

Archive for the ‘What EDF looks like in action’ Category

Family dynamics

I want to bring up a pattern that I see in families where one of 2 kids is identified as having executive function problems and one is not.  There is a tendency to see one as good and the other not so good, healthy and fragile, easy and a workout.  Once they are categorized that way, it becomes hard for the family to see the good, healthy, easy one as having needs or the not-so-good, fragile, work out one as having the ability to succeed unaided.

Folks tend to be unaware of doing this, they really see the older boy as badly behaved and given to poor choices, while the younger one has a teacher who doesn’t understand, and a coach who asks too much. Sometimes it’s the older kid who is identified as needing help while the younger one doesn’t essentially because the older one has hit a heavier workload in the upper grades, while the younger one hasn’t yet.

The thing is when you get in the habit of seeing one kid’s difficulties as faults needing correction (punishment)  and the other as having a need for support, you’ve got a bigger problem than you think.  You are teaching your children how to think about themselves and each other.  If I think of myself as the troubled one, how does that influence my choices about, say alcohol?  Worth thinking about…..

Missing Assignment Reflections, part 2: What if the responses schools make for students with learning disabilities are not helpful?

This week I was involved in a conversation with a 16 yr old A student, his teacher, and his mom.  The trouble  is that he had not turned in several homework assignments, and had gotten zeros, threatening his A average.  He reminded the teacher that he has a  plan of accommodations for his diagnosed ADHD, including extra time.  The teacher him another chance to turn the work in, so the student’s mother emailed the teacher  supporting her son’s reference to the accommodation plan.  The teacher then agreed to give him an extra day to turn in assignments.  Of course, tempers were running hot by this point.

As the mother cc’d me in her email conversation with the teacher,  I talked with the student, and we deconstructed what was actually happening.  The teacher assigns  homework each day.  About once a month, she puts  a list of 10-12 assignments to turn in on the chalkboard.  The students read the list on the board and pull those assignments from their binders, clip them together, and hand them in.  Even though my student does the homework every night and aces the tests, his homework turn-in packets tend to be incomplete.  Some assignments don’t get turned in. Why?

Some probing turns up what is going wrong.  Although pulling out a dozen assignments from the binder and turning them in sounds like a simple enough thing to do, it is actually quite a series of actions which must be coordinated.

  1. The student looks up at the board,
  2. reads an item from the list,
  3. looks down to his binder to find it, and
  4. pulls it out for turning in.
  5. Then, he looks up to the board again and reads another item in the list, repeating the process.

The Problem is that sometimes he skips an item or two from the list without knowing he is doing so.  Unconsciously, he tries to keep up with the speed at which the other students are completing the task so he does not take the time to be sure he has all that has been asked for, so his packet is incomplete.  The teacher does not find out that his packet is missing items until she comes to it later, in her process of grading,  so the second day goes by without the student knowing that he has missed anything, and full of other things to occupy his mind.  He gets the packet back with a lower grade than he is expecting.

All the proper steps have been taken, but the extra time accommodation – one the schools are comfortable to provide, and which sounds like a good thing – does not solve the problem and everyone is unhappy with anyone else.  There are solutions.  They depend on understanding what the problem really is, a difficulty with sequencing, working memory, and moving between a vertical and a horizontal visual field.

  • One is for the teacher to provide the extra time at the front end of the process instead: she can supply the student with the list of assignments she wants turned in the day before she puts the list on the board.  But that ruins the surprise of having to turn in a selection of the assignments given over the course of the month, and feels unfair to the other students who wouldn’t get such a heads up.
  • Another is to hand the student a list on paper at the same time that the others have the list on the board,  so that he can physically check off each item as he pulls it, and doesn’t get disconnected, losing his place between looking up at the board and down at his binder.

We could think of several others, and I am tempted to offer ones that do not depend on the ongoing game of  “gotcha” that is implied in the processes of this class.  That will be a post for another day.

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.

The problem of being a novice

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?

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!