Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager's Guide to Executive Functions

Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager's Guide to Executive Functions

by Randy Kulman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781886941762
Publisher: Specialty Press/A.D.D. Warehouse
Publication date: 04/01/2012
Edition description: Original
Pages: 100
Sales rank: 550,688
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

About the Author

Randy Kulman, PhD, is the founder and president of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Kulman has also been the clinical director and president of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties. He is the author of numerous essays on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children and is the coauthor of a chapter in the book Designing Games for Ethics: Models, Techniques, and Frameworks. He lives in Wakefield, Rhode Island.

Read an Excerpt

Train Your Brain for Success

A Teenager's Guide to Executive Functions

By Randy Kulman, Peter J. Welleman

Specialty Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937761-11-0



How to Get Your Act Together

Sometimes it's just hard to get your act together. You have too many things to do, not enough time to do them, and you don't always know exactly where to begin. It becomes even harder to get it together when you can't find what you're looking for, your little brother or sister is annoying you, or you know that you're not remembering something that's really important.

It was tough enough when your elementary school teacher gave you a lot of homework. But once you get to middle school and high school, you've got five, six, or sometimes even eight teachers all giving you different types of work that is due on different days. And all of them have different expectations about how you should do it. If you're like a lot of kids, you're probably busy after school, as well. Maybe you're on a sports team or in a club, have an after-school job, or need to go home to get your brother or sister off the school bus.

Managing all this stuff is not easy. Lots of capable, smart, and hard-working kids feel that they're not doing everything as well as they should. Some of them are very forgetful and can't remember their homework. Others are so disorganized that they can't find it even when they do finish it all. Lots of kids have problems staying focused and paying attention, and others just aren't able to sustain their energy and effort enough to complete their work from start to finish.

Guess what? If you feel like this, you are not alone. Like many kids with these difficulties, you might just need to know that there is a reason for these problems that have become a part of your daily life. There is a very good chance that you need some help improving your executive functions. This book explains what executive functions are and shows you some really easy ways to improve these skills.

What Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are a set of thinking, problem-solving, and self-control skills. Scientists who study the brain believe that they are situated in the most modern part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, and that they connect to many other areas of our brain, as well. Some people refer to executive functions as being like the conductor of an orchestra. Just as an orchestra conductor decides what music to play and then directs, coordinates, and organizes the musicians to play it well, executive functions tell our brains what to do.

Executive functions help us to decide what to pay attention to in our lives. They may help us in planning and organizing our thoughts and activities and are useful in helping us to know how to get started on something and then how to manage our time. They also help us to control our behaviors and emotions and stop us from doing something thoughtless or something that might hurt ourselves.

As you can imagine, executive functions are very important to your success at school. They help you to pay attention in class and to understand and balance the material you are learning. They also help you to choose your behavior for different settings and to know how your actions will affect other people.

Some kids have more difficulties with their executive functions than others. These kids often report getting easily distracted at school, having problems starting and finishing their homework, and having difficulty remembering directions or what they have read. Fortunately, scientists who study the brain have begun to prove that learning new skills actually changes our brains, so that by practicing brain-based skills such as executive functions we can actually change the way our brains look and operate.

How to Use This Book

This book is organized around eight different sets of skills that capture the ways that kids use executive functions in school, at home, and in their other activities. At the end of each chapter are some very practical ideas for how you can improve your skills. The next-to-last chapter tells you about some really cool ways that you can use digital technologies such as cell phones, iPods, and the Internet to improve your self-management skills.

This is the kind of book where you don't have to read every chapter but can choose to skip around and look at the chapters that interest you most. To get the most out of this book, start by filling out and scoring the questionnaires in Chapter 2. These will give you a better idea of your particular strengths and weaknesses and help you to decide which areas you want to improve.

Please Read This

This is not a children's book. It is written for older kids who are capable of understanding their own strengths and weaknesses and who want to improve their skills.

The book is based on a few straightforward and simple ideas:

1. If you take the lead or choose to be an active partner in setting goals for yourself rather than having your teachers or parents set goals for you, you are more likely to improve in your area of choice.

2. If you believe that you can improve yourself and you work at it, you will do it. This is known as having a growth mindset, which is a way of saying that you know your willingness to improve and your efforts to keep working towards improvement will lead to improvement.

3. Unlike some personal characteristics, skills are not preset. For example, if you have stopped growing and you are 5' 6" tall, you will not be able to stretch yourself to 6' to help with your basketball abilities. On the other hand, you can improve your skills for running faster and jumping higher and, in turn, improve your game.

4. Skills require practice. By practice we don't mean just learning how to do them better, we mean the practice of doing them regularly. For example, if you learn how to do a tiring and complex dance routine or athletic activity very well and then stop practicing it for a while; you simply won't be as good at it.

5. The more you practice a skill the more it becomes a part of you. It's like when you brush your teeth (we hope you do it regularly). You probably aren't thinking too much about the pattern of your tooth brushing, but it is pretty much the same every time you brush.


Learn About Your Executive Skills

Take a Survey About Your Skills

If you're like most kids you are probably good at some things and not as good at others. This is true about your executive functioning skills, as well. While every once in a while you might meet someone who seems to be good at everything, when you really look at other people you'll see that most of them have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Some people seem to be really good at a lot of things, but that might be because they choose to do the things that they are good at and enjoy.

Kids who are particularly good at reading, writing, and other subjects at school probably do well at them in part because they like them, the work comes easily to them, and they are areas that make them feel good about themselves. Kids who are really good at sports, art, or mechanics are probably good at them because they keep their interest and they keep practicing to get better at them. Those who like to hang out with their friends or who are always involved in group activities probably have good "people" skills or a lot of energy.

We encourage you to be careful not to compare yourself too much to other people. It's tough enough if you have a brother or sister who is noticeably better at a certain executive functioning skill than you are, such as paying attention or organization. However, you can probably think of some strengths that you have that your sibling does not have. More importantly, we encourage you to step back and look at the activities that you really like to do because you are likely to find that the executive-functioning skills that cause you so much trouble in school are not such a big deal during fun activities.

Now, wait a minute. That doesn't mean that you don't have to work on improving those executive-functioning skills for school. But if you notice that it's easier for you to pay attention and to start and finish an art project, build a birdhouse, or fix your bike than it is to study for a history test, then you've just learned something important about yourself.

We think about the things that truly interest and engage us as "lighting up your brain." When your brain is lit up, it tells you that there is more blood flow going to the parts of your brain (often the prefrontal cortex) where most of your executive-functioning skills come from and that they are working more efficiently for you. While neuroscientists are still studying how and why those parts of your brain light up when you are engaged in a task that you find interesting, they are starting to believe that it may have something to do with the reward centers in the brain, meaning that certain types of activities are more rewarding and stimulating for you.

Keep this information in the back of your mind; it will be important for you when you're older and have more of a choice about what you want to study, what field you want to work in, and what skill sets you want to improve. If you can involve yourself in activities that "light up your brain," everything else will work better for you. You'll probably be happier, get more accomplished, and feel better about yourself.

In the meantime, many kids who are reading this book will find that their brains do not "light up" as much as they'd like them to in school or when they are asked to do chores or other activities that they don't enjoy. As much as we would like to tell you not to worry about this or that when you are an adult you won't have to do anything that you don't want to do, that's not the case. So it makes a lot of sense to figure out strategies to get better at some of the executive functions that are difficult for you. Luckily we know that if you can identify the skills that you need to develop and then learn to practice them regularly, you will be able to improve these skills. Getting better at them might make something that wasn't of interest to you before "light up your brain" now.

How do you know if you are really struggling with executive functions? Some kids may not be aware of these difficulties at all. For example, if you are slow at finishing your work, you might think, "That's just the way I am." Other kids have problems with being focused and sustaining their attention. Many of these kids say that they have never been able to sit still for very long except for doing things such as playing video games, building with Legos or blocks, or watching a movie. Other executive-functioning difficulties may have developed over time and may not be quite as easy to see. For example, difficulty with planning probably didn't mean very much to you when you were younger because your parents and teachers planned everything for you. However, now that you are a teenager, you have a lot more activities and responsibilities for which you need to plan.

It would be unusual to hear a person with difficulties with executive functions say, "Oh, I've got a problem with organization," or "I have difficulty with my working memory." What you are more likely to notice is a feeling of frustration when you can't find your homework because it is somewhere, but you don't know where or when you are trying hard to remember all of the things that your mother asked you to do but you've got a nagging feeling that you've forgotten one or two of them. For teens, recognizing that you have difficulty with executive functions usually occurs because you are feeling discouraged, not doing as well as you want to do at something, taking longer than your friends to finish your work, or can't pay attention even when you are trying your hardest to do so.

Parents and teachers tend to see these weaknesses from another point of view. In fact, parents and teachers often begin to identify problems that kids have with executive functions when they are in their early elementary school years, but sometimes don't quite know how to label these difficulties. For example, your teacher might have said, "Jacob's desk is a complete mess. He can never find his pencil to start his work," or "Hannah talks so much in class that she is not paying attention to directions." When you get into your teen years, your parents are likely to say things such as, "If I don't sit with him to do his homework, he won't get it done," or "She's getting so moody and irritable, and acts upset about little things." Your teachers in middle school and high school might observe you and think that you don't care about your work or that you're just being lazy and taking too long to do your schoolwork. Unfortunately for kids who have difficulty with executive functioning, this type of negativity or lack of understanding can stick with you and influence your self-esteem.

The goal of this book is to help you figure out which of the executive functions you might want to improve. Most teenagers, even those who do really well in school and seem so organized and together, are likely to struggle in one or more of these areas. Kids who tell us that they have trouble with executive functions often have difficulty in several of these areas. In part, that's because they are related to each other. For example, kids who have problems planning out the steps needed to clean their room might also have problems organizing their belongings so that they know where things are.

Completing the following questionnaire will help you to understand if you have a particular difficulty with an executive function and how it might affect you at home, at school, or with your friends. Later in the book we list some fun and practical ways for you to practice and improve that executive function.

If you are ready, turn the page and answer each question as honestly as you can. Remember, the purpose of filling this out is to learn more about yourself so that you can work on improving. After you have completed the questionnaire, we will show you a bit more about your executive-functioning strengths and weaknesses. We also encourage you to complete a checklist at the end of the chapter that will help you to identify your strengths, as well as situations where the weaknesses that we just discovered may, in fact, be more of a strength.

Executive Functions Questionnaire

Please answer the following sentences as either true (by circling T) or false (by circling F). You will notice that many of these sentences use words such as often, easily, or regularly. This is because many of these sentences describe common difficulties for teens that can become problems when they occur again and again. Answer honestly so that you can better determine which of these areas may be a problem for you.

Now that you have completed the questionnaire, it is very easy to score it. If you notice, the questions are separated into groups of three. If you answered true to all three in a group, this is an executive skill that you will want to address. If you circled two in the group, you also might want to consider working on that skill. If you have a score of 0 you have identified one of your executive function strengths.

Look below to see the skill to which each set of three questions refers and put your as either 0 if you stated F to all three questions or 1, 2, or 3, depending on how many Ts you answered for each question.

We want you to understand that what you've just done is a rough estimate of your own executive-functioning skills. To know more about them, it would be helpful to have your parents fill out a set of similar questionnaires. To know even more, you could take a set of neuropsychological tests that provide even better information about your executive-functioning skills. What you are doing here, though, can serve as an excellent guide for helping you to determine your executive-functioning strengths and weaknesses. In particular, it helps to understand those areas that you see as an area of weakness that would be best for you to improve.

To get a first glimpse into what your scores mean, look at the following section. This will give you a very brief definition of each executive skill.

Experts and Students at Using Executive Functions

Now that you've scored your questionnaire, we encourage you to look at the executive functions for which you received your highest scores and those for which you received your lowest scores. Keep in mind that a high score means that this is an area that you need to improve. A low score indicates that this is an area of strength for you.

We have chosen to call people who have a great deal of knowledge about using a particular executive function and experience applying it in most situations "experts." We refer to someone with less mastery, who will also be likely to have difficulty applying a weaker executive function in new situations, a "student."


Excerpted from Train Your Brain for Success by Randy Kulman, Peter J. Welleman. Copyright © 2012 Randy Kulman, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Specialty Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction - How to Get Your Act Together 1

2 Learning about Your Skills - Take a Survey about Your Skills 5

3 Organization - Where is My Stuff? 15

4 Planning - What Should I Do? 23

5 Focus - When You Have to Pay Attention 31

6 Time Management - When You've Got Too Much to Do 39

7 Self-control - How to Stop, Relax, and Decide 47

8 Flexibility - Try Something New 53

9 Working Memory - If I Could Only Remember 59

10 Self-awareness - I Understand, I Understand 67

11 High-tech Ways to Improve Your Skills - Mom, Dad, I Need My Cell Phone! 73

12 Keep on Going and Growing - You Will Get Better and Better 79

Addendum: Parents' Guide 81

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