Post submitted by Peg Dawson, psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, N.H.
My article, “Lazy—Or Not?,” makes the point that many students who parents and teachers assume are lazy or unmotivated may actually lack the executive skills necessary to be effective students. I’m talking about such skills as task initiation, sustained attention, planning, organization, time management, and goal-directed persistence.
Neuroscientists have found that executive skills reside in the part of the brain that is the last to develop. In fact, it takes as much as 25 years for these skills to reach maturity. Until executive skills are fully developed, parents and teachers act as “external frontal lobes.” They provide cues, reminders, organizational schemes, and other accommodations to supplement the less-developed skills of children.
Working in and with schools for more than 30 years, I have too often found a mismatch between the expectations that schools and teachers (and sometimes parents) have for children’s ability to manage themselves and what children are actually capable of. Although I describe a youngster with ADHD in my article, typically developing students also often suffer from that mismatch.
I can point to examples across all ages, but the mismatch between expectations and student brain development seems most evident in middle school. Changing classes and having multiple teachers with diverse expectations stress their weak organizational systems. Teachers often adopt the attitude that students should learn to develop their own organizational structures so that they will be ready for high school. Unfortunately, students don’t always learn the skills they need—and end up feeling more blamed than supported.
How have you incorporated instruction in executive skills into your classroom? What routines and reminders have you used to help students learn to stay on track?