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Learning vs. Producing Difficulties: The Role of Executive Functions

October 20, 2014

McCloskey and Perkins (2012), in their book, Essentials of Executive Function Assessment, point toward the importance of identifying the existence of deficits in executive function when attempting to understand students’ lack of production as well as the absence of internal drive and motivation in order to avoid attributing academic failings to things like bad behavior, resulting in what they call “character assassination” which makes matters worse.

To begin, executive functions (EF) “direct and control perceptions, thoughts, actions, and to some degree emotions.” In essence, they mediate or determine how well students can access their actual abilities. They point to three situations that may exist in the classroom: students with learning difficulties only and adequate EF; students with producing difficulties only; and those with both learning and producing difficulties. A learning difficulty is really a learning disability. The federal definition is a deficit in one of the basic psychological processes that interfere with the development and use of language whether it is in oral or written form that manifests itself in an inability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do math calculation. Students with only a learning difficulty may go unidentified for many years because they compensate by working hard, disguising their learning disability. However, by about middle school, their compensatory strategies are overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of the assigned tasks. A producing difficulty, in contrast, may occur when students have adequate ability, but their executive functions are deficient, and, consequently, they do not direct or cue students’ brains as to what to attend to, what to do, and when to do it. Students with only a producing difficulty may have their lack of production attributed to “lack of motivation, character flaws, and behavior problems.” Usually, students come to our attention when both types of difficulties are exhibited.

Why is it important to differentiate between the above groups of students? First, those students with an unidentified learning disorder may eventually “burn out” from the degree of effort they may need to perform successfully when they could have received supports to address the difficulty. Second, those students with a producing problem present as having little internal motivation unless they are doing things that are of interest to them. This is a common profile in students with ADD. Thus, it is easy to misattribute their lack of production to an attitude problem or worse. Of course, the longer this group’s problems are not identified as EF problems, the less success they will experience at school, exacerbating the situation and possibly leading to behavioral issues.

Dealing with students who do not produce (i.e. including having a Teflon coating with respect to things like “forgetting” assignments, books, papers, and other materials) that frustrate teachers and parents is difficult because these problems go hand-in-hand with a lack of internal drive. While working with these students to strengthen their EF is a formidable but doable task, responding to EF deficits with criticism and only negative consequences just hardens students’ resistances to produce by adding bad feelings to the equation.

An example of how EF deficits can derail students with adequate skills is frequently seen when performing written expression tasks. Writing, independent of any of these difficulties, is a complex task requiring online EF skills and adequate abilities. It develops over a longer developmental period than other kinds of language. It requires adequate abilities in phonological awareness, orthographic awareness (i.e. the visual structure of words), and visual-motor coordination as well as EF direction in the form of attention and focusing, sustaining effort from the beginning to the end of the task, long term memory to retrieve what is already known, decent processing speed, the ability to inhibit responses to distractions, and sequential processing to name a few. Students who have adequate ability, but suffer from a lack of EF direction, will do things like fail to activate themselves to work unless the teacher or aide is working with them to cue them to work. They will also most likely lack the EF set of being able to monitor their work, so reviewing and revising work becomes something that is skipped over.

Another example is when students are taught a math concept on Monday and have no clue about what was taught on Tuesday. Students may do well on spelling tests, but be unable to transfer their knowledge of word structure to their written work. These problems may be due to working memory deficits or basic deficits in attention as it is impossible to learn and retrieve what was never attended to. These common occurrences are maddening to adults. However, unless EF is identified as an issue and efforts are made to strengthen students’ executive functions, they will continue to have difficulty accessing their actual abilities, leading to a slippery slope of frustration to disinterest in learning.

Addressing EF deficits is usually not accomplished by making more demands on students who do not respond well to being told/forced to do something that they do not want to do or have little interest in or see as unimportant. Furthermore, no amount of badgering will lead to significant internalization of what is being demanded and, more importantly, greater internal drive. While it is beyond the scope of this article to spell out how to buttress leaky EF, suffice it to say that finding creative ways to join with students such that they feel that the ideas/practices adults are trying to enforce become their own ideas. When something comes from yourself rather than having it inflicted on you by others, you are more likely to want to engage in it.

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