executive functioning

The Unmeasured Executive Functioning Issue

My oldest. Pause for a deep sigh. If you have a child with executive functioning issues, you know that deep sigh. It’s equal parts irritation, frustration, and humor, incredulous, exhausted, and determined. Kids with executive functioning deficits or issues aren’t easy to raise, am I right? My firstborn is a dream child to parent – respectful, personable, intelligent and funny. He’s slept like a dream since he was an infant and will pretty much eat anything you put in front of him. He’s an all around great kid, he just really struggles in areas of executive functioning.

executive functioning

Executive functioning skills are those life skills or thought processes that relate to self-regulation, self-monitoring, organization, paying attention, time management… basically the skills to get things done. Imagine a preschooler handling the tasks of paying bills, balancing a checkbook, getting up for work on time, doing dishes, meal planning, and driving to work without a map. The poor kid would be in over his head, drowning in tasks he doesn’t understand and lacking the understanding of what they even take to complete. This is a decent image of what a child with executive functioning deficits looks like.

I don’t expect my 12-year-old to manage the bills or make everyone’s meals, but he does struggle with executive functioning skills. 

He can solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded but can’t remember where the sentence he started was going. 

He can come up with the most creative stories, but can’t get them written or turned in on time. 

He’ll read a book in record time, but will lose it seven times in the process. 

He is always, always running late. 

He’s messy, forgetful, clumsy… traits you might assume are pretty par for the course with a tweenaged boy, except they’re so pronounced that they interfere with his daily functioning – and worse. 

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We’ve always joked about his lack of executive functioning skills. Long before we knew what they were called, we noticed that he seemed so scatter-brained, absent-minded, and really kind of lost. We would get frustrated, sometimes angry when he’d lost yet another thing. I even admit to breaking the cardinal rule of raising a gifted child and saying, “You’re so smart, how you can you possibly not be able to do this?!” 

We’d laugh when he tripped, sigh when he’d misplace something, grumble when he was running late. Everyone in our home knew he struggled in these areas, including him. 

When I finally found a name for what was happening – and some relief that it wasn’t just him not paying attention – we set to work on helping him strengthen his weaker areas. I downloaded a copy of Colleen’s Executive Functions Workbook and sat down to work on it with my kiddo… after we found the pencil he’d already lost, of course. 

The basics were there – he needed practical steps and help when it came to staying organized, managing time, and remaining focused. We talked through what he would need to do for each task that was expected of him and how we could help him keep track of those. He’s a practical, engineer-type kid so this conversation was fairly easy and he nodded along as he tapped his now-broken pencil. He knew he struggled so there was nothing very surprising coming out of what I was saying. 

When it came time for him to share, though, was when the biggest shock of all came. 

We all knew where he struggled, in what areas he was weak in. But when it came time to fill in the blanks that asked him to list his strengths, all he wrote was “Rubik’s cubes”. That was it. My brilliant, hilarious, friendly, creative, problem-solving and people-loving boy could only think of one thing he was good at. 

This is what we hadn’t seen. 

This is what we couldn’t measure. 

The effect that the lack of executive functioning strength was having on his self esteem. 

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I own it – this effect was hugely my fault. 

His shortcomings and struggles had become fodder for our teasing. Whatever he broke or forgot we’d viewed through the lens of how it affected and annoyed us. He’d been floating in a sea of confusion and frustration, unable to anchor himself, and we’d allowed our own irritation and expectations to blind us to how it was affecting him

I’m not proud, y’all. I’m actually very ashamed.

I apologized, over and over, day after day. I hugged my gentle, forgetful giant and told him all of the amazing things we saw in him. I promised to help him, to respect his struggles, and to find a way to instruct rather than criticize

I’m sure none of you have made the same mistakes as I have. Our family has a (sometimes bad) habit of unapologetic sarcasm that we don’t always realize can be hurtful. But just in case you find yourself with a kiddo who is struggling, straining, forgetting, breaking, losing, and otherwise just bumbling through life, let me urge you to love on him. 

Stop and take a moment to see the situation through your child’s eyes. As frustrated as you are at yet another lost hoodie, imagine the absolute confusion your kiddo feels at being unable to find it. As irritated as you are at running late, imagine the helpless feeling your child is experiencing at being unable to finish, being unaware they were even supposed to finish, and knowing that everyone is waiting on them. Before you lose your temper at what’s been broken, imagine the shame your kiddo feels at having been the one responsible for it. 

Whatever you are feeling towards your child’s deficits, those feelings aren’t lost on him. I promise you he’s got his own feelings about them, too. You’re allowed to be frustrated, because let’s be real – it’s pretty frustrating. But in the midst of the irritation, pause for a moment and don’t share it with your child. 

There are lots of ways to help your child with their executive functioning issues, but there are just as many ways to harm them, as well. I allowed my own frustration to turn my son’s executive functioning deficits into a self-esteem deficit. Resist the urge to view your child’s flailing as flaking. 

Encourage him in what he’s good at, instruct him in what he’s not. Remember that his struggles don’t come from a place of defiance or indifference, but of deficit. Help your child grow stronger in the areas where they’re most weak, especially when their greatest weakness is seeing just how great they are.