Smart but Scattered
The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential
By Peg Dawson, Richard Guare
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2013 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
How Did Such a Smart Kid End Up So Scattered?
Katie is 8 years old. It's Saturday morning, and her mother has sent her to clean her room, with the admonition that she can't go across the street to play with her girlfriend until everything is picked up. Katie reluctantly leaves the living room where her younger brother is engrossed in Saturday morning cartoons and climbs the stairs. She stands in the doorway and surveys the scene: Her Barbie dolls are scattered in one corner, a tangle of dolls and outfits and accessories that look from a distance like a colorful gypsy ragbag. Books are piled every which way in her bookcase, with some spilling out on the floor. Her closet door is open, and she sees that clothes have fallen off hangers and drifted to the floor of her closet, covering several pairs of shoes and some board games and puzzles she hasn't played with recently. Some dirty clothes have been kicked under her bed but are visible in the space between the bedspread and the floor. And there's a pile of clean clothes strewn around the floor by her bureau, left there after a mad search for a favorite sweater she wanted to wear to school yesterday. Katie sighs and goes to the doll corner. She places a couple of dolls on her toy shelf, then picks up a third doll and holds it at arm's length to inspect the outfit she's wearing. She remembers she was getting the doll ready for the prom and decides she doesn't like the dress she chose. She scrabbles around in the pile of miniature clothing to find a dress she likes better. She's just snapping the last fastener on the dress when her mother pops her head in the door. "Katie!" she says, a note of impatience in her voice. "It's been half an hour and you haven't done a thing!" Her mother comes over to the doll corner and together she and Katie pick up dolls and clothes, placing the dolls on toy shelves and the clothes in the plastic bin that serves as a clothes chest. The work goes quickly. Mom stands up to leave. "Now, see what you can do with those books," she says. Katie walks to the bookshelf and begins organizing her books. In the midst of the pile on the floor, she finds the latest in the Boxcar Children series, the one she's in the middle of reading. She opens the book to the bookmarked page and begins reading. "I'll just finish this chapter," she tells herself. When she's finished, she closes the book and looks around the room. "Mom!" she cries out plaintively. "This is way too much work! Can I go play and finish this later? Please?!"
Downstairs, Katie's mother sighs heavily. This happens every time she asks her daughter to get something done: she gets distracted, discouraged, and off track, and the job doesn't get done unless Mom sticks around and walks her through each and every little step—or caves in and does it all herself. How can her daughter be so unfocused and irresponsible? Why can't she put off just a little of what she'd prefer to do until she finishes what she has to do? Shouldn't a third grader be expected to take care of some things on her own?
Katie has been in the 90th percentile on the Iowa achievement tests since she began taking them. Her teachers report that she's imaginative, a whiz at math, and has a good vocabulary. She's a nice girl, too. That's why they hate to keep reporting to Katie's parents that their daughter can be disruptive in class because she can't stay on task during a group activity or that the teacher has to keep reminding her during quiet reading time to get back to the book and stop rummaging around in her desk, fiddling with her shoelaces, or whispering to her neighbors. Katie's teachers have suggested more than once that it might help if her parents tried to impress upon her the importance of following directions and sticking to assigned activities. At this point her parents can only reply sheepishly that they've tried every way they know to get through to their daughter and that Katie sincerely promises to try but then can't seem to hold on to her vow any more than she can follow through on cleaning her room or setting the table.
Katie's parents are at their wits' end, and their daughter is at risk of falling behind at school. How can someone so smart be so scattered?
As we mentioned in the Introduction, kids who are smart often end up scattered because they lack the brain-based skills we all need to plan and direct activities and to regulate behavior. It's not that they have any problem receiving and organizing the input they get from their senses—what we might ordinarily consider "intelligence." When it comes to smarts, they've got plenty. This is why they may have little trouble comprehending division or fractions or learning how to spell. The trouble shows up when they need to organize output—deciding what to do when and then controlling their own behavior to get there. Because they have what it takes to absorb information and learn math and language and other school subjects, you may assume that much simpler tasks like making a bed or taking turns should be a no-brainer. But that's not the case because your child may have intelligence but lack the executive skills to put it to best use.
What Are Executive Skills?
Let's correct one possible misunderstanding right off the bat. When people hear the term executive skills, they assume it refers to the set of skills required of good business executives—skills like financial management, communication, strategic planning, and decision making. There is some overlap—executive skills definitely include decision making, planning, and management of all kinds of data, and like the skills used by a business executive, executive skills help kids get done what needs to get done—but in fact the term executive skills comes from the neurosciences literature and refers to the brain-based skills that are required for humans to execute, or perform, tasks.
Your child (like you) needs executive skills to formulate even the most fundamental plan to initiate a task. For something as simple as getting a glass of milk from the kitchen, he needs to decide to get up and go into the kitchen when he's thirsty, get a glass from the cabinet, put it down on the counter, open the refrigerator and retrieve the milk, close the refrigerator, pour the milk, return the milk to the refrigerator, and then drink it either on the spot or back in the family room where he started out. To carry out this simple task he has to resist the impulse to grab and eat the chips he spots in the cabinet first—they'll only make him thirstier—and to choose a sugar-loaded soda instead of milk. If he finds none of the usual glasses in the cabinet, he has to think to check the dishwasher instead of opting for one of his parents' best crystal goblets. When he finds the milk is almost gone, he has to soothe his own frustration and resist starting a fight with his little sister when he's sure she drank most of the milk. And he has to be sure not to leave a milk ring on the coffee table if he doesn't want to be banned from having his snacks in the family room in the future.
A child with executive skill weaknesses may be able to get a glass of milk without trouble—or he may get distracted, make poor choices, and demonstrate little emotional or behavioral control, leaving the fridge wide open, leaving a trail of milk droplets across the counter and the floor, leaving the milk out on the counter to spoil, and leaving his little sister in tears. But even if he can get himself a glass of milk without incident, you can bet that he will have trouble with the tasks in his life that are more complicated and more demanding of his ability to plan, sustain attention, organize, and regulate his feelings and how he acts on them.
Executive skills are, in fact, what your child needs to make any of your hopes and dreams for his future—or his own hopes and dreams—come true. By late adolescence, our children must meet one fundamental condition: They must function with a reasonable degree of independence. That does not mean that they don't ask for help or seek advice at times. But it does mean that they no longer rely on us to plan or organize their day for them, tell them when to start tasks, bring them items when they forget them, or remind them to pay attention at school. When our children reach this point, our parenting role is coming to an end. We speak of our children as being "on their own," accept this at some level of comfort, and hope for the best for them. Social institutions do the same, defining them as "adult" for most legal purposes.
To reach this stage of independence, the child must develop executive skills. You've probably seen an infant watch his mother leave the room, wait for a short time, and then begin to cry for his mother's return. Or maybe you've listened to your 3-year-old tell herself, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like your own, not to do something. Or how about watching the 9-year-old who actually stops and looks before he races into the street after a ball? In all these cases you're witnessing the development of executive skills.
Our initial work in executive skills dates to the 1980s. In evaluating and treating children with traumatic brain injuries, we saw that the source of many cognitive and behavioral difficulties was deficits in executive skills. Although less severe, we noted similar types of problems in children with significant attention disorders. From these origins, we began investigating the development of executive skills for a broad range of children. While there are other systems of executive skills (the Resource section includes references for these systems), our model has been designed to achieve a specific goal: to help us come up with ways that parents and teachers can promote the development of executive skills in kids who have demonstrated weaknesses.
We've based our model on two premises:
1. Most individuals have an array of executive skill strengths as well as executive skill weaknesses. In fact, we've found that there seem to be common profiles of strengths and weaknesses. Kids (and adults) who are strong in some specific skills are often weak in other particular skills, and the patterns are predictable. We wanted a model that would enable people to identify those patterns so that kids could be encouraged to draw on their strengths and work to enhance or bypass their weaknesses to improve overall functioning. We also found that it made sense to help parents identify their own strengths and weaknesses so they could be of the greatest help to their kids.
2. The primary purpose of identifying areas of weakness is to be able to design and implement interventions to address those weaknesses. We wanted to be able to help children build the skills they need or manipulate the environment to minimize or prevent the problems associated with the skill weaknesses. The more discrete the skills are, the easier it is to develop operational definitions of them. When the skills can be operationalized, it's easier to create interventions to improve those operations. For example, let's take the term scattered. It's great for a book title because as a parent you read the word and know immediately that it describes your child. But scattered could mean forgetful or disorganized, lacking persistence, or distracted. Each one of those problems suggests a different solution. The more specific we can be in our problem definition, the more likely we are to come up with a strategy that actually solves the problem.
The scheme we arrived at consists of 11 skills:
These skills can be organized in two different ways, developmentally (the order in which they develop in kids) and functionally (what they help the child do). Knowing the order in which the skills emerge during infancy, toddlerhood, and beyond, as mentioned earlier, helps you and your child's teachers understand what to expect from a child at a particular age. In a workshop we conducted several years ago with teachers in kindergarten through grade 8, we asked teachers to identify those two or three executive skills in their students that were of greatest concern to them. Teachers in the lower elementary grades focused on task initiation and sustained attention, while middle school teachers stressed time management, organization, and planning/prioritization. Interestingly enough, teachers at all levels selected response inhibition as a skill that they saw lacking in many of their students! The main point, though, is that if you know the order in which skills are expected to develop, you won't end up wasting your time trying to bolster a skill in your 7-year-old that is typically not mastered before age 11. You have enough battles already, you don't need to add beating your head against a brick wall.
The table on pages 16–17 lists the skills in order of emergence, defines each skill, and provides examples of what the skill looks like in younger and older children.
Infant research tells us that response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, and attention all develop early, in the first 6 to 12 months of life. We see the beginnings of planning when the child finds a way to get a desired object. This is more evident when the child walks. Flexibility shows in the child's reaction to change and can be seen between 12 and 24 months. The other skills, such as task initiation, organization, time management, and goal-directed persistence, come later, ranging from preschool to early elementary school.
Knowing how each skill functions—whether it contributes to your child's thinking or doing—tells you whether the goal of your intervention is to help your child think differently or to help your child behave differently. If your child has a weak working memory, for instance, you will be working to give the child strategies to help her retrieve critical information (such as what she has to bring home from school for homework) more reliably. If your child has weak emotional control, you will be working to help him use words rather than fists when he discovers that his little brother sat on his model airplane. In fact, though, thinking and doing go hand in hand. Very often, we're teaching kids how to use their thoughts to control their behaviors.
The thinking skills are designed to select and achieve goals or to develop solutions to problems. They help children create a picture of a goal and a path to that goal, and they give them the resources they'll need to access along the way to achieve the goal. They also help your child remember the picture, even though the goal may be far away and other events come along to occupy the child's attention and take up space in his or her memory. But to reach the goal, your child needs to use the second set of skills, ones that enable the child to do what he needs to do to accomplish the tasks he has set for himself. The second set of skills incorporates behaviors that guide the child's actions as he moves along the path.
This organizing scheme is depicted in the table below.
When all goes as planned, beginning in early childhood, we come up with ideas for things we want or need to do, plan or organize the task, squelch thoughts or feelings that interfere with our plans, cheer ourselves on, keep the goal in mind even when obstacles, distractions, or temptations arise, change course as the situation requires, and persist with our efforts until the goal is achieved. This may be as time limited as completing a 10-piece puzzle or as extensive as remodeling our house. Whether we're 3 years old or 30, we use the same set of brain-based executive skills to help us reach our goal.
During much of your child's growth, you can see those executive skills improving. You probably remember having to hold your child's hand on the sidewalk constantly at age 2, then recall being able to walk side by side when your daughter was 4, and then letting her cross the street on her own a few years later. At each stage you were aware that your child's executive skills—her ability to be independent—were growing yet were not developed enough for the child to manage her behavior or solve all the problems she faces without guidance. Everything you teach your child reflects your instinctive understanding that you play a role in helping your child develop and refine these executive skills. So, if parents are playing this role, how do some kids end up off track? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare. Copyright © 2013 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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