Closing the Door and Other Executive Difficulties

It has become an ongoing family joke.  Without anyone even looking, we all (including the 4 year old) will shout out “Cub. . . Door”  anytime he is the last to leave a car, a house, anywhere.  Inevitably we will hear, “doh!” as he backtracks to shut the widely flung door.  We have been reminding him to shut the door since he was two.  He is now 11.  Welcome to executive function issues.

Executive functioning is a hot topic among the education and mental health fields recently.  These skills include planning, organizing, impulse and emotion control, decision making, working memory.  Basically, all the higher order skills that help to differentiate our human selves from less cognitively advanced animals.  You’d think that gifted individuals would naturally be more advanced with these executive functioning skills.  You’d think wrong.  There’s some truth behind the absent-minded professor stereotype. 

Let me give you another example, involving Cub,  that just occurred yesterday.  A few months ago we adopted a dog.  She still isn’t the best at listening when she gets off leash and has the opportunity to run around the countryside.  Yesterday, she got off leash.  I’m recovering from a surgery and unable to trudge through the Wisconsin snow to track the dog down, so I call upon Cub.  You can imagine that there’s some sense of urgency so as to retrieve Daisy before she completely runs away.  Well, at least I understood the sense of urgency.  Cub, however . . .

“Cub – quick!  Daisy got off her leash and she’s running through the back woods.  Throw your boots on and go get her, please!”

A literal minute or 2 later, Cub comes slowly meandering into the room.  “Mom, my boots are soaked.”

“OK – just throw on anyone’s boots.  KBear’s feet are about your size.”

Another minute or 2 passes and a meandering Cub arrives again, “Mom, KBear has her boots with her at school.”

“Just throw some boots on – I can’t see Daisy anymore – you’ve got to get out there.”

This time I follow him back to the mudroom and watch for a second as he looks completely lost and unable to decide what to do.  I point out his dad’s boots and tell him to put them on.  Then I direct him out the door.  He begins to walk (slowly) the long way round instead of the shorter, direct route, which I can see, of course, because he left the door open.

I understand that giftedness and executive function skills are not synonymous.  Yet, it continues to amaze me that we can have this deep politically strategic conversation in one minute, and the next he can barely get himself out the door.  But, it is partially specifically because he can have these deep and strategic thoughts that the day to day executive functioning skills can lapse. 

Our gifted children experience asynchronistic development.  Certain habits and skills may lag behind as other skills develop.  The 501 thoughts rushing through a gifted child’s mind can interfere with what we’d think would be common sense thoughts or behaviors.  These thoughts can distract our gifted kids.  Their imaginational intensity can create internal fantasy worlds that are far more brilliant and amazing than daily life and their creativity can interfere with day to day functioning.  They might get so caught up in the internal stories they are telling that they forget to bring their flute to a band lesson or their script to a rehearsal or shut the door.

So, what to do?

First – respond with patience.  At some point their executive functioning skills will develop further (though beware of the preteen and early teen years, the brain becomes far busier in other areas that some increased spacy-ness is to be expected).

Second – respond with compassion and understanding.  They truly are doing the best they can.  If they could do better, they would.  Besides, if we get angry or frustrated, the child’s more likely to experience heightened stress and anxiety which will only further interfere with executive functioning.

Third – Set appropriate expectations.  No one expects a child in a wheelchair to get up and walk up the stairs.  We know that they have limitations and we make appropriate accommodations in certain areas while challenging them in other areas.  This is the same for any of those hidden disabilities that can affect executive functioning.  Know what your child is capable of and set the expectations appropriately.

Fourth – Teach the skills.  The nice thing about executive functioning skills is that they are indeed skills.  They can be taught.  A great resource for this is the book “Smart, but Scattered”.

And finally – (though perhaps this should come first) – evaluate your own executive functioning.  What skills do you excel at and in which skill areas do you struggle?  Most likely the areas that you find most frustrating in your child are also the areas you struggle.  See this as an opportunity to work together to improve these skills.  Show your child that no one is perfect and everyone benefits from effort toward continued improvement.

And maybe get some self-closing doors.

This post is part of Hoagies' Gifted Blog Hop on Executive Functioning.  Find more fantastic information and stories here.