Gifted Learners and Executive Functioning

“How can she be so smart and forget to turn in her schoolwork?”

“His homework is always correct, but it takes him forever to get started!”

“Her work is excellent, but I don’t know how she can find it in that mess of a desk!”

Sound familiar?

It isn’t uncommon for high-ability learners to struggle with executive functions. Sometimes it may be a result of asynchronous development. Other times, students who skate through school develop bad habits that then become executive functioning deficits when the rubber hits the road in older grades. The learner may also be twice-exceptional (2e) and have another (perhaps unidentified?) diagnosis, such as ADHD.

Other factors that may impede a gifted child’s executive functioning can have to do with their giftedness directly. Some gifted kids may have very fast processing speed, leading their brains to rapidly move from one topic to another, and leaving basic skills in their dust. An example of this is a gifted child with poor inhibitory control in class who calls out before other kids have raised their hands because the child is already three steps ahead of the teacher. Other gifted children whose processing speed shows a great lag behind their other cognitive processes may struggle to show task initiation skills that look like lack of motivation.

Sometimes referred to as cognitive controls, executive functions are mental processes that allow for the control of behavior. These controls range from basic to higher order, with higher order executive functioning requiring the use of two or more of the basic skills. Basic executive functions include attentional control (concentration), inhibitory control (self-control), working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Higher order executive functions, such as planning, organization, and fluid intelligence, require an individual to use multiple basic executive functions simultaneously. Sometimes described as “the CEO of the brain”, these functions allow us to set goals, organize, self-monitor, and overall get things done.

We aren’t born with these abilities, however. Executive functions are something that gradually develop and change over time, and they can be improved on at any point in life. While growth in these areas typically comes about naturally through aging and experience, those with executive functioning issues may find one or more of these basic functions challenging. Executive functioning issues are not a diagnosis in and of themselves, but are a common problem for those diagnosed with ADHD, a specific learning disability, or other learning and attention issues.

Executive functioning issues present themselves differently in each person. Kids may struggle with only one or two of the functions, while others may find all areas difficult. Similarly, different issues will present themselves at different points in life; the functions that a kid in elementary school struggles with are different than those of a high-schooler.

Here are some possible signs that kids are struggling with executive functioning skills:

  • Difficulty starting and/or completing tasks
  • Quickly forgets information they’ve been told or have read
  • Difficulty switching tasks or following directions
  • Becoming overly emotional and fixate easily
  • Inability to manage time
  • Unorganized, messy desk or backpack
  • Having trouble planning or keeping track of assignments
  • Panicking when rules or routines change

There are countless online resources and activities that you can use to help your child improve their executive functioning skills and succeed in life and school. It’s important to work with your child and learn which areas they need to focus on and what best helps them. If your child needs extra help, it could be beneficial to enroll them in courses or a psycho-educational group to get more in-depth training and attention.

Other strategies to support high-ability learners with executive functioning deficits are:

  • Target a single skill (such as task initiation) and develop specific strategies to work to improve that skill. As gradual progress is made in this area, focus on another.
  • Help students learn to identify their executive function struggles for what they are. Procrastination is not laziness; being disorganized doesn’t mean someone’s dumb.
  • Provide appropriate support at incremental levels to build skills. Don’t expect a child who is unable to inhibit their behavior to change overnight. Find the balance between providing the support to encourage growth and change and enabling the child to continue unhelpful behaviors.
  • Keep it simple! Sometimes, a binder with multiple folders and dividers is too much. For example, finding a single repository for “work to turn in” can help students know where to find it, no matter what subject or class they are in.

Utilize their heightened cognitive skills to develop a plan that will work for them. By engaging a student’s ability to problem solve through and find strategies that will work for them, not only will they be more invested in the solution, they will also feel empowered to find solutions to new struggles in the future.

Authors: Madeline Kaleel and Emily Kircher-Morris for the Social and Emotional Development Network