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.
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.
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 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.
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.