Making Decisions, Suffering and Learning; It All Goes Together

The list of “symptoms” of “Executive Function Disorder” bears further scrutiny.

Reading down the list from the point of view of a parent or a teacher, images of frustrating children you have known flood back to you, and you find yourself nodding in recognition and gratitude that someone has done the work of bringing all those frustrating things about children together in one place and discovering a syndrome. “Ah, yes,” you sort of say to yourself without thinking, “I always felt something was wrong, and now someone has discovered what it is. It has a name, Executive Function Disorder.” You give a little sigh, grateful that it turns out it’s not just you; there really is a problem.

But let’s think about this a little. Number “2” on the list, for instance, is  “Consequences for negative behavior don’t alter future actions.” What’s an example? We have zillions, don’t we? I ask Freda to stop talking to her seatmate in class. She does it anyway. I tell her she will have to stay in from recess. She does it anyway, again.

Making Decisions, Suffering and Learning; It All Goes TogetherJimmy is a particularly interesting example. In school “logical consequences” did not change his behavior. He seemed not to care what other people felt, seemed to impulsively disrupt class, seemed ignorant of his weaknesses. He manifested many of these “symptoms,” and by the time I met him in second grade, parents, teachers and therapist had diagnosed him as EFD.

Jimmy’s class had been learning how to make adobe bricks and had built an adobe wall. One day, in the after school program Jimmy knocked the wall down destroying many of the bricks. When Jimmy and I talked about it, we agreed that the natural consequence would be for him to come in over the weekend and remake the wall. After all, our rule was: “You break it; you fix it.” We also agreed, of course, that he would have to talk to the class about what he did and how he intended to fix it.

His parents protested and brought in the therapist to support their contention that given his disability, this was an unreasonable and unfair consequence.

Perhaps, we need a new hypothesis about his “impulsivity.”

Another time Jimmy was sent to my office, the conversation went like this:

“Jimmy, why are you here?”
“I tripped Ellen on the playground.”
“Was that a mistake?” I asked, expecting him to acknowledge a bad decision.
“No,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t a mistake. I did it on purpose.”

Yes, some people have a harder time learning from mistakes, acknowledging weaknesses, controlling themselves and delaying gratification than others (all “symptoms of  EFD”). But there is only one way to develop good decision-making skills: practice.

Let’s not pathologize Jimmy and Freda. Let’s help them make better decisions by treating them as if we respect them as autonomous decision makers who will lean into a problem and learn from trials and errors. Will we embrace the trials? Can we handle the errors?

When you’re sitting at the table helping another person wrestle with a problem or read a sentence, do you lean in? Do you put your finger on the page when you make a point? Stop it. Whoever does the leaning does the learning.

Julie Pangrac, Director of Project Read, a program for illiterate adults sponsored by Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois, trains her staff that when you lean in, you take over, and they back off. To learn, they have to own their own decisions and own the consequences. Children want to lean in. They need us to tolerate their suffering.

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