Latest update: May 26th, 2013
Q: My daughter’s teachers have been telling me that she has trouble with her executive functions. I know she is not organized and often forgets to finish her homework, but I am not sure exactly what they mean. Can you clarify the term?
A: In their book, Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Peg Dawson and Richard Guare explain:
Executive skills allow us to organize our behavior over time and override immediate demands in favor of longer-term goals. Through the use of these skills we can plan and organize activities, sustain attention, and persist to complete a task. Executive skills enable us to manage our emotions and monitor our thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively. Simply stated, these skills help us to regulate our behavior.
Among the individual skills that allow people to self-regulate are:
Planning: the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal. This also includes the ability to focus only on what is important.
Organization: the ability to keep track of multiple sets of information and materials.
Time management: the ability to understand how much time one has, and to figure out how to divide it in order to meet a goal.
Working memory: the ability to hold information in mind even while performing other tasks.
Metacognition: the ability to self-monitor and recognize when you are doing something poorly or well.
Response inhibition: the ability to think before you speak or act.
Sustained attention: the ability to attend to a situation or task in spite of distraction, fatigue or boredom.
If your daughter’s teacher is saying that she has trouble with executive skills, consider looking into Executive Function Disorder. Those who suffer from EFD have trouble with the skills listed above, forcing them to struggle with assignments that others perform with ease.
Q: Ever since my son started coming home with failing grades, I have been getting reports of his pushing other kids around and intimidating them verbally. Of course, the whole family has been working to correct this scary behavior, but I wanted to know if you had any insight into whether his grades are related to his behavior?
A: Bullying and failing grades often go hand-in-hand. Sometimes the victim of bullying can begin to fail in school because he is focusing all of his energy on simply getting through the day, rather than concentrating on the material at hand. On the other hand, occasionally, bullying and failing grades manifest themselves differently. At times, children begin to fail in school and then lose faith in themselves leading to lower self-esteem. They then try to gain self-esteem by putting others down. Therefore, it is possible that your son began to struggle academically and subsequently took out his disappointment on his classmates.
And, while bullying is detrimental to the victim, it is also proven to be harmful to the bully himself. Children who bully are more likely to drop out of school or have trouble sustaining long-term relationships in the future. So, it will not only be helpful to your son’s classmates to address the bullying, it will be helpful to your son as well.
Academics and social skills often go hand-in-hand. Children with low self-esteem because of their grades will frequently act out socially. Conversely, children who struggle socially will occasionally give up in school because they feel disconnected from the classroom. While we don’t usually think that helping children academically will improve their social skills, the two often coincide.
So, yes, it’s possible that your son’s failing grades are affecting his self-esteem. This lower self-esteem might in turn prompt your son to pick on other kids in order to make him feel better. One solution? Get him comfortable academically. The rest may follow.
Q: My teenager daughter seems to quickly switch from one mood to another. She might be very happy and relaxed at the dinner table and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, get frustrated and angry. I know mood swings are normal for this age, but I wanted to know how much anger is too much?
A: Teenagers are notorious for their mood swings and out of control emotions, including anger. Let’s look at the origin of these emotions. First, adolescents are going through a lot of physical changes. Second, for years, they have lived happily in the cocoon of their family and now suddenly are gaining freedom and seeing options outside of the home.
These two issues, physical changes and new independence, create a lot of confusion and angst in adolescents. They experience a real push and pull – if they grow as an individual, does that mean they are not going to fit into their family structure anymore? These conflicting emotions often lead to adolescent anger.
At its heart, this anger is positive. It means that the teenager is growing into his or her own person and developing an identity that is separate from his or her parents. The American Counseling Association explains that it is how this anger is controlled or expressed that makes all the difference, “the problem is not anger, but that individuals frequently do not know how to manage anger.”
When you are angry, the natural reaction is to respond aggressively. Anger is a natural response to threats and it allows us to fight and defend ourselves when we feel attacked. Therefore, a certain amount of anger is necessary for our survival. Alternatively, we cannot simply act out each time something irritates or annoys us.
The American Psychological Association explains that people use a variety of conscious and unconscious approaches to deal with angry feelings. Two of the main ways that people handle anger are expressing and suppressing. Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive (but not aggressive) manner is the healthiest way to approach anger. Being assertive means being respectful of others while still making sure that your own needs are met.
Unexpressed anger can lead to other problems, such as feeling perpetually hostile and cynical. If people are not able to constructively express their anger, they might end up putting others down, criticizing everything, and making pessimistic comments. Not surprisingly, people do not express their anger are not likely to have many successful relationships.
Anger is not an inherently bad emotion. Rather, it is how we deal with anger that makes all the difference.Rifka Schonfeld
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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