“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.
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.

Building our executive self is what all of us are born to do, and we spend a lifetime doing it.

One school I know hired an Executive Function Specialist to diagnose and work with children who have “Executive Function Disorder.” Since they hired this person ten years ago the incidence of Executive Function Disorder has gone up. They just decided last week to hire a second: one for the middle school alone and one for the younger grades.

The medical model is so embedded in our consciousness that it blots out common sense. Education is not medicine. Malfunctions (and God knows everyone has them every day in varying degrees of severity and outcomes) are not dysfunctions. Mistakes–repeated mistakes, even–are simply a window into where a person needs to grow… maybe. Furthermore, People will need to make that growth on their own. A coach cannot make it happen. Certainly coaches can help (I am a good coach; it’s my profession) but we all need coaches, anyone can do it for someone else, and there is no guarantee that our coaching will have the expected result in the hoped-for timing.

Executive Function Disorder SymptomsAt 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 was a great help, and he was very grateful.

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.

Every person I know—of any age—is working on one or more of these skills. Furthermore, no tutor can teach them. They are learned by taking on challenges, making decisions and learning from mistakes. Building our executive self is what all of us are born to do, and we spend a lifetime doing it.

18 educational objectives

If this 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. 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.


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30 Responses to “Executive Function Disorder” exposes an Education Dysfunction Disorder.

  1. Stephenie says:

    Thanks I agree – I cringe whenever I hear the words “executive function disorder” and I quickly just translate it to a ‘lack of maturity’. Children need time and the right conditions for their brains to mature and to develop integrated functioning (a la developmental science). Yes a child can get stuck in certain areas, and more sensitive children do take longer (because they have to be slightly tuned out and defended to function in the world), but given the right empathic, safe conditions brains that allow for adaptation and tears of feeling the futilities of life, children will develop resiliency…

  2. Rick says:

    Thank you, stephanie.

  3. Rick Armstrong says:

    I had never heard of the phrase “Executive Function Disorder”. As I was reading the title and the list, I inferred that EFD referred to adults – specifically principals and CEO’s. I was quite surprised to read that it is ‘in vogue’ and is being applied to children. I agree that “maturity” is a much more benign term for this collection of symptoms.

    However, in medicine, if you hire a specialist for a disorder and after treatment the incidence increases, the hospital would not hire more specialists to cover the increase! But in education….

    With reference to the concept and attempted measurement of IQ, Stephen Jay Gould introduced me to the concept of “reification”. Basically, take a collection of attributes, measure them, create a name, and you have created something (IQ or EFD) that really doesn’t exist. Further measurements find disparities and problems to fix. (PS: When you dig deep enough, the definition of IQ is pretty much ‘IQ is what IQ tests measure’.)

  4. Amy says:

    I think it’s more like emotional distress recordings that make it very difficult for people to act outside of their learned patterns that are consequences of hurts. They need to be listened to and healed from these distresses — through raging, crying, laughter, sweating, shaking, talking, all the ways that our bodies heal naturally from both physical and emotional hurts. The problem is very few people can listen to all this happen without really having done the work themselves. Human beings who can get hundreds of hours of being listened to will heal and reclaim their natural flexibility and “intelligence” – meaning the ability to respond to every new situation freshly, not with their set of patterned responses.

  5. As always, Rick, you have a great perspective on these kinds of topics. Executive functions seem to be the “in” thing to measure for these days in children. It’s ridiculous!

  6. I find I so agree – so glad you pointed it out, that the medical model doesn’t work in education. Our use of “damage”, “broken”, and even “disorder” when we speak about and work children who haven’t had the opportunities, permission, support, and environments in which to grow and develop is a subtle but strong message to these children, one of hopelessness, in my view.

    As I was reading down the list of symptoms, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to one that I didn’t have! What a great list to distract us from who we are! Love your post! Marty

  7. Rick says:

    S glad it speaks to you. Everyone just goes along with this destructive or at least worthless and distracting activity

  8. Marshall says:

    Hi Rick,
    Happy New Year, and thank you for another fine piece.

    Rising incidence of diagnosis… Hmmm… reminds me of the classic, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

  9. Rick says:

    Right, Marshall, no two ADHD’s, Autisms, dyslexia’s, EFD’s are the same. That some are alike, that kids can be lumped together with certain characteristics in common, is a distraction from the central challenge that we each have; i.e. how to make something creative and constructive out of our unique, messy selves.

  10. Brilliant and most comforting commentary! It’s easy to feel like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes when I see education opportunities where seemingly everyone else sees illness. Thank you for being a like lensed “kid” on life’s playground!!!

  11. Rick says:

    Thank you, Marlaine. Comes from all that time on the playground, maybe.

  12. Susan says:

    This is genius, Rick! I learned so much from this post. I’ve always wondered if there was a connection but I’ve never heard anyone discuss it before. I would love to be in a discussion group about this topic. So much to explore here.

  13. Rick says:

    Susan, maybe we should organize a conference on the UNdisabilities, and the true learning disabilities–the ones that we cause and that all kids are at risk for. I am ready with the keynote for that one, and would love to be in conversation with professionals across the country about it.
    (But I am not an event planner.)

  14. Annie Zirkel says:

    Interesting reframe of these issues. And I agree in principle and for most of us. But, no matter how you frame it, helping some children who truly struggle with their educational goals in these areas can be extremely challenging. The thought processes, hyper anxiety arousal, and past trauma triggers can be difficult to address. Especially in a classroom setting. Peer support and as Amy said above – deeply committed, well-attuned listening are essential! Thanks for a great post Rick.

  15. Phil Young says:

    I found your article quiet enlightening. As a former educator I have to agree with the peer support model as being effective with students, not just in the behavioral realm, but academic skills as well.

    As educators we should never rely on the medical model, though I do believe in it. Why would I make that statement? As some one pointed out this is education. Educators need to understand that the medical model is using those 18 symptoms to make a 5 Axis Diagnosis that can be used for medical billing purposes and determination of impact on a person’s quality of life. However as is pointed out the number of students identified went up. Why? Because the “educational expert” begins to identify these symptoms. Our “experts” are not trained to identify the level of impact that these symptoms impact the learning process. The medical model does identify on one of the Axis the global level of functioning. In layman’s terms it means how does the symptom impact on the daily functioning of the person. The same increase in ADHD was noted decades ago. That is why medication on some of these diagnosed children exacerbate the symptoms rather than ameliorate the symptoms. They are misdiagnosed for treatment of symptoms that exist but are not necessarily due to medical/psychological conditions. If truth be known, with the implementation of the behavioral model in education it has created more children with specialized diagnoses and behavioral labels. It is a model that should be torn out of education as it, too, is based on the medical model.

  16. Rick says:

    Thank you, Phil. The medical model is so entrenched in our system, thinking and practice, that it will take forceful testimony such as yours to shake it loose. Many children are suffering.

  17. Marty says:

    I love all these comments!

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  19. excellent points altogether, you simply won a new reader.
    What could you recommend in regards to your publish that
    you just made a few days in the past? Any positive?

  20. A mother's love says:

    I wish I could agree with Rick-oh, how I wish he were right. Because then I could, once again, have hope for my child. I, too, chose to believe for 20 years that with the proper attention, training, role-modeling, structure, consequences/rewards, maturity, education, environment, peers, adult interaction, and prayer my son would one day be able to live an independent, productive life. I wanted desperately to belive my friends when they said, ‘wait until he has a girlfriend, then he’ll remember to shower’. When I expressed concern to numerous Doctors about his lack of ‘common sense’ they would talk with him and then ask me, ‘have you had his IQ tested, he’s very smart?’ I never doubted his intelligence-it was his inability to cope with routine daily functions and his lack of basic problem solving skills that frightened me. Rick, while your opinion is well intended, I suspect it’s not based on personal experience with this type of individual. I, also, relate personally to having ‘suffered’ from these 18 ‘symptoms’ but you are essentially mocking those individuals who suffer from a debilitating condition that prevents them from getting the higher education you seem to think is the cure-all. If only it were that simple. My son (who, by the way, was eventually tested to have an IQ in the 99.9 percentile) will struggle the rest of his life to live independently and keep a minimum wage job. My intention is not to write an essay about EFD but rather, to suggest you re-consider your uninformed (dare I say, uneducated?) opinion. It is not at all helpful to those who must deal with the realities of this disability.

  21. Another mother says:

    I hear you, “mother’s love” – I am in a similar situation with my son – I hope Rick has heard you as well, so that he can begin to bring a more sensitive and nuanced response to this issue that he so airily dismisses – which is interesting considering that he sometimes does talk good sense. I believe that my son is very slowly learning some insight into his own limitations and difficulties, which is the first step towards mastering them – but he can only do that through social contact and independent living – which means for rural residents that as a tertiary student he has to live 150 kms away from home with no public transport links home – there is nothing in between – but I don’t know how he will be able to get a job where he can use his real intelligence and be able to be a part of the community as a contributing adult. Having executive function skills is not the mark of an ‘educated” or a bright person – but of a maturely functioning person – I have seen children at 4 with better executive function skills than some adults.

  22. vancouver says:

    An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a coworker who was
    conducting a little research on this. And he actually ordered me dinner because I found it for him…
    lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this matter here
    on your blog.

  23. Highly energetic post, I loved that bit. Will there
    bbe a par 2?

  24. Rick says:

    To: A mother’s love and Another Mother: Thank you both for your very thoughtful and emotionally powerful contributions. I appreciate your perspectives a great deal–they are important. Yes, the article was obviously insensitive to those who suffer from more extreme executive function challenges. I intend not to mock those who suffer, but to suggest that a medical model does not apply. Neither of you have related how “diagnosing” the “problem” helped. We agree, I think: these are challenges that each of us in our own way have to face up to, and yes, some people will have a harder time than others, some very much so.
    Also, I did not intend to communicate that “higher education” is the solution. What I meant was that mastery in these 18 areas defines an educated person (as opposed to a schooled person). Many have become educated without going to school, and all of us are still in need of more education–including me obviously.

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  27. GinaD says:

    You left out one of the key problems which underlies the disorder, which is a poor working memory. My son is 11 and very bright but if you ask him to write a letter he can’t do it because he can’t keep track of a beginning, a middle, and an end in his head at the same time. This is a real problem but he had a teacher whose response was to punish him for not doing his work, which honestly had no hope of doing on his own, which led to anxiety and clinical depression and a worsening cycle of academic performance.

    A common sense approach would have been to give him extra help and patience but she refused as she ascribed his inability to finish assignments to laziness and belligerence. He had had many good teachers previously and we did not need to pathologize my son in the classrooms of most of his teachers, but this woman was thick as a brick and an IEP was the only way to stop her from abusing him, basically.

    The last thing I wanted was to have a learning disability on my son’s transcripts, but there was no hope that his school was going to get him to grade level unless they were compelled by law and that requires a diagnosis.

  28. Rick says:

    Gina, Heartbreaking. This is not education it is child abuse.

  29. GinaD says:

    Yes, but I think this approach is common for kids like this. By formulating it as a disorder it spurs research into effective methods of teaching children that the educational system currently fails. And it places the responsibility back on teachers to teach, not wholely on the student. These kids are bad at school and they can’t make good decisions in complex situations because they can’t keep all the outcomes in their heads. They need a path forward besides juvenile delinquency which is where they end up now. But approaches like Klingberg et al 2005 that uses computer based learning to specifically target wworking memory show promise.

  30. A Concerned Mom says:

    A Mother’s Love nailed it. My almost 9 year old is highly intelligent, yet he cannot read. He has executive functioning processing issues, double defecit dyslexia and ADHD. He calls us mommy/
    daddy or daddy/mommy. He does not put his shoes
    unless prompted. He has highly aware with a
    sophisticated sense of humor and vocabulary. It
    took him over a year as a toddler to understand 1-10
    numbers. He might read the same word over and
    over again but that same word will seem foreign
    after seeing it 20 times. The brain is complex. I do
    not know what the future holds for my son. I can tell
    you I will never stop advocating for him. I do believe
    that he will learn in certain situations if I step back
    and let him understand the circumstances. As for
    reading I am getting private help and will continue to
    fight for the right services/placement.

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