On Thursday last week, I spoke with the mom of a child who had asked her to find out if someone could help him control his behavior in school. (I’ll call him Owen.) He has a tendency to interrupt his teacher, to speak up without being called on first, and to have difficulty staying in his seat long enough to finish assignments. Owen’s nine.
In our first conversation, his mom and I talked about how it’s easy to confuse and confound the symptoms of attention deficit disorder and profound intellectual strength. The two can look quite similar in the context of a classroom in which children are expected to perform repetitive, stationary, lower-level cognitive tasks. Owen, his mother told me, has tons of physical energy, and is very curious and interested in learning. He can’t always stand to wait for other students to catch up with where his brain is. He was recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder/executive function. I told her that what I’d be able to provide for him is support in building strategies for managing his school work and that this work would most likely be successful if combined with intellectual (in the form of logic puzzles, creative problem-solving activities, and other tasks that involve higher-order thinking) that would meet his craving for intellectual engagement.
In our second conversation, after she had spoken with Owen’s teacher, his mom told me that there didn’t seem to be any evidence of the executive function difficulty in the classroom, and what the teacher was more concerned about was impulsivity – the interrupting, the speaking up without being called on, the scooting around the classroom when he was supposed to be in his seat.
This mom originally called me at the recommendation of the neuropsychologist who evaluated her son. This evaluator has referred several children to me and I have worked with some of them. I think it’s expected that I will be able to help children with their executive function difficulties. It’s true that I have been able to help some children (as well as some adults) with executive function difficulty. But as often as I help with that (which is only when the person him or herself experiences the executive function difficulty as an impairment), I end up helping with something else that makes a different kind of difference.
Helping children with executive function is usually a matter of helping them comply with environmental demands in which they don’t have much intrinsic investment. It’s not that they don’t notice or feel the effects of not being able to comply with the demands; it’s that if given the choice, they would rather not be required to. If you offered them the chance to exist in an environment that didn’t make those demands, and they could exist there without being ostracized for it, they would choose that.
If this is the case with a child, helping with the executive function tends to be a losing battle. Kids who fit this description tend to undermine their own efforts to improve their ability to stay on task in school, get their homework done, and generally keep track of their assignments.
So executive function is for most children a matter of adaptation. They’ve been assigned an environment, and in order to succeed there, to be deemed successful according to the measures of the environment, they must alter their tendencies and habits.
Owen’s teacher doesn’t think that he needed help with executive function, but the concerns she does have are also about his adaptive performance. A typical classroom is not a natural fit for a person with a lot of physical energy, who needs motion and activity in order to keep calm, to think clearly, to feel at ease.
In my second conversation with Owen’s mom, she asked if I might be able to help with the impulsivity. Now that the executive function concern was out of the way, the focus would be staying seated and not interrupting or speaking without being called on by the teacher.
It’s at this point that my job becomes a little weird. Weird is probably not the right word. Agonizing is a better word, if you want one that describes my experience of it. Here’s why: I could do what this mom is asking. I could help her son get himself to stay in his seat. I could help him build and use strategies for keeping quiet when he was expected to in the classroom. And if I did, some things would be better for him than they are now. He would feel less self-conscious. He would be embarrassed by his behavior less often. He might finish more of his work. His parents and teachers would stop worrying about his behavior and about his future.
Is there a cost, though, to staying in your seat when you have the impulse to move? Or to completing a page of problems you already know how to do rather than thinking about something that intrigues or otherwise engages you? Or to slowing your own thinking to meet that of a group of age-peers simply because they’re the same age as you are, and thus the only classmates you are entitled to?
In some ways, I wish there weren’t. I wish I could sit down with a child and coach him or her to adapt to the environment that is the current reality for most children and believe that it would only help. The push for adaptation, and quick, is tremendous. I hear so many times a week that children need to be prepared for the way the world is. They need to learn to do things they don’t want to do, to learn to be told what to do, to find out that life is hard, to get used to not getting their way. I do know that some adaptation is crucial to survival, and not just in the wilderness. There are ways that the world is, and to be able to navigate them helps. But to only adapt is not necessarily, in my opinion, to optimize the potential of the human organism. And sometimes, to become accustomed to adapting without advocating for one’s needs and strengths is to shortchange the species, to deny it the potential for growth and progress.
A few years ago I was working with a fourth grader whose mom was concerned about his math skills. One week he came into my office and sighed a great, heavy sigh as he settled into a chair across from me.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“I need you to show me the second way of subtracting,” he said.
I asked him to tell me more.
“Well, last week my teacher showed us how to subtract, where you cross out the one number and then add the one to the number next to it…” he looked up at me to confirm that I knew what he was talking about. I nodded, and he continued. “So then today at math time she wrote another problem like the ones we were doing last week up on the board and started talking. I thought she was just showing us that same way of subtracting again so… I… stopped… listening.” He said this quietly.
“It’s OK,” I said.
He sighed. I waited for a moment to see if there was more.
“Is that the end of the story?
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s all. I mean, I found out later that we were supposed to be learning a second way of subtracting that we have to do for homework and now I don’t know how to do it because I wasn’t listening.”
“OK. I have a question.”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“OK if I ask it?”
“You don’t have to answer me unless you want to, but I’m wondering what you were doing with your mind instead of listening to the teacher about the second way of subtracting.”
He took a deep breath. “Well, my brother and I got a Lego Millenium Falcon for Christmas, and after we built it with the instructions, we took it apart and started building another one with our own design, but we’ve been having trouble getting it to support its own weight. I had an idea about adding these struts in the back like this (he demonstrated the angle he had in mind) and I was trying to imagine how they could attach.”
I’ve asked kids this question, about what they were thinking about when the classroom environment demanded they be thinking about something else, attending to something chosen by the adult in charge, and it’s not always a complicated engineering problem as it was this time for this child, but it’s rarely frivolous. I suppose that frivolity is a matter of opinion, so I should add that it’s rarely frivolous in my opinion. A wise friend of mine told me once that his primary reason for considering the possibility of not sending his children to school as soon as they turned five was that it was important to him that they have access to their own thoughts – that they have a chance to figure out what they were interested in, what mattered to them, and he thought that if they were hurried off to school, where they would much of the time be told what to think about and when, that they might not have the chance to get acquainted with the contents of their own minds and imaginations.
This fourth grader, once he thought he was all set with subtraction, turned his attention to a fairly complicated problem of engineering.
From a very young age, humans go looking for good uses to put their minds to.
From a very young age, humans go looking for good uses to put their minds to. There’s an extent to which we sometimes undermine and interrupt that process in the name of adaptation and presumed survival. We imagine that if we just force a kid like this one to comply with our curricular plans for him, that later, once he’s been taught (and re-taught) everything we consider basic, he can turn his attention to contribution and participation.
There are a few problems with this model. One is that the curiosities of a young person don’t necessarily hang in there in the face of being ignored, suppressed, or otherwise dishonored. A child who is fascinated by technical problems as a five and six and seven year-old but is not free to explore such problems and is told that the most important thing is to do well in his schoolwork, his spelling and his multiplication, will often not remain loyal to his earlier curiosities. (In fact, a child who does remain loyal is often considered a behavior problem, or difficult, or resistant, at risk for failure as a student.)
Also, we know that the brain is most elastic when it’s young. The flexibility and openness to new ways of thinking is not confined to language learning. If we spend all that elasticity on predetermined and prescribed content, we leave little room for the thoughts and unique creative potentials of the individual. (And I don’t mean creative in an artistic sense, though I include the artistic – I mean creative in its basic sense, making things up, thinking of things that haven’t been thought of or haven’t been thought of in a particular way.)
This is all to say, I suppose, in many many paragraphs, that I think there’s a balance to be struck, to be sought, between adaptation and actualization. Between supporting an individual in finding his or her way among the obstacles erected around him over time and supporting him or her in exploring and realizing the fullest possible extent of her capacities and curiosities. A balance which, if struck or even aspired to, could save a lot of frustration for a lot of students (and teachers) and offer all of us better access to the extent of potential contained in our human selves.