“Executive Function Disorder” exposes an Education Dysfunction Disorder

Do you know anyone who suffers from any of the following symptoms?

  1. Motivated by immediate needs
  2. Consequences for negative behavior don’t alter future actions
  3. Inability to reflect on past experience to plan for the future
  4. Difficulty adapting to change
  5. Sees personal problems as externally caused. Unable to see his/her own contribution to the problem.
  6. Difficulty taking other’s perspective
  7. May vacillate from impulsivity to rigidity
  8. May continue to use the same strategy to solve a problem after it’s proven ineffective.
  9. Doesn’t stop and select a strategy that fits a problem before trying to solve it
  10. Little awareness of personal limitations or weaknesses, even if presented constructively
  11. Difficulty and/or lack of interest in setting goals
  12. Little sense of pleasure in making progress toward a goal
  13. Difficulty taking initiative
  14. Rapid mood fluctuations
  15. Insensitivity to inner emotional state. May “act out” an emotion, rather than verbalize a feeling
  16. Gives up easily when frustrated
  17. Very poorly developed self concept
  18. Lack of empathy?

Do you know anyone with these symptoms? I do. I have a few of them, myself. I also notice that the appearance of these “symptoms” seems to be depend on the challenge I am facing.

“Executive Functioning Disorders are Characterized by the Following Symptoms:” is the title of this list published by a reputable educator, psychologist and learning disabilities specialist Dr. Rachelle Sheely. She is in good company. Such lists of symptoms of dysfunctions are pervasive. But look at this list simply through the eyes of your experience going through the challenges of life, and the list brings the field of education to the point of self-mockery.

This definition of “executive function disorder” is simply the opposite of a list of the characteristics of an educated person: An educated person has enough self-control to postpone immediate needs in the pursuit of more farsighted aims, can learn from mistakes and change behavior, can reflect on past experience, adapt to change, take responsibility for problems and not blame others or make excuses, can take another person’s point of view, knows when to be impulsive or rigid, makes plans, designs paths to goals, devises new strategies when old ones fail, thinks before acting (when the situation calls for it), admits personal limitations or weaknesses even in the face of negative criticism poorly delivered, takes initiative, empathizes appropriately and has emotional awareness and control. In short, an educated person is a self-confident, resilient learner who can work with others.

If the list of 18 “symptoms” were reframed as 18 educational objectives and put on the report card as the main thing, then we would get better results with students. We would get better results because we would be measuring what really matters, because students could help each other, and because teachers would love to come to school everyday.

The medical model is so embedded in our consciousness that it blots out common sense. Education is not medicine. Malfunctions are not dysfunctions. Mistakes–even repeated mistakes–are simply a window into where a person needs to grow. Furthermore, people will need help making that growth.

The truth is that we all need an Executive Function Coach, but not because we have a disorder. We need an Executive Function Coach because facing the challenges of life competently requires us to continue to develop our decision-making repertoire.

Every person I know—of any age—is working on one or more of these critical skills. but no tutor can teach them. Teaching is not the delivery system for these skills; coaching is. At my last school in San Francisco, we asked second grader Amanda, someone with very high social skills, if she would be a social coach for Erik, a classmate who was diagnosed as being “on the autism spectrum.” She did a great job. She didn’t “cure” his autism, but she helped him make better decisions, and he and his teachers were very grateful.

Building our executive self is what all of us are born to do, and we spend a lifetime doing it. As we each take on the challenges of our lives, a coach can help us focus on the quality of our decision-making and help us to learn from our mistakes. If we all helped each other develop our executive function, we would do a better job of helping young people become strong. …the test scores would even go up as students spent less psychic energy worrying about their dysfunctional selves.

Note: This article was first posted on geniusinchildren.org January 23, 2014

About the Author

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator, speaker and leadership coach with more than 40 years of experience in schools, 35 as head of school. He is the author of The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children. His blog is www.geniusinchildren.org.



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