Lancer Letter


#507 (Re-run of #120): Help for Frontal Lobes

I’ve decided in this time period between now and when I’m “re-retired,” I will occasionally run some Lancer Letters that have been popular or touch a topic I feel is worthy of repetition. This one comes from February of 2013 and follows the series run before Christmas.

In the Lancer Letter series before Christmas, I used a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to lead into a discussion on the topic of executive function. Executive function is the term given to work performed primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain. Think of it as the conductor of an orchestra, directing all the work of the musicians in a beautiful composition. During our January in-service in 2013, middle and high school teachers spent the day with psychologist Dr. Doug Della Toffallo learning about this critical function of the brain.

Specifically, executive brain functions include: response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, planning and prioritization, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, flexibility and metacognition (thinking about thinking). We find these skills to be significantly declining among students. Consider the following example:

It is Tuesday morning at 6:30 a.m. in the Smith household. There is no indication to Mr. or Mrs. Smith that Jesse, their 15–year–old son, is stirring, although he was supposed to be up at 6:15, since his bus comes at 7:00. His mother knocks loudly on his door to remind him that he needs to get up immediately or he will be late. In a voice muffled by his pillow, Jesse mumbles, “Relax, Mom. I’ll get there on time.” Mrs. Smith sighs.  If Jesse misses the bus, she will need to drive him and won’t be able to get to work early as planned. Jesse emerges from his room at 6:40, grabs a bowl of cereal, and casually leafs through the sports pages. Every few minutes, his mother reminds him of the time, and he in turn reminds her that she needs to relax. Jesse does manage to get out the door and make the bus but calls 15 minutes later to tell his mother he forgot his lunch and his algebra book, which has his homework in it. He thinks it’s on his desk. Could she drop it off on her way to work, before the end of this first period? His mother agrees because she knows Jesse already has missing assignments.

The example above may be all too familiar to some parents.  Jesse likely has a deficit in his executive function skills. Psychologists note that executive skill deficits may have three different sources. The first is conditions or diagnoses such as ADHD, autism and traumatic brain injuries.  The second source involves situations or conditions that are related indirectly to executive skill weaknesses such as sleep disorders, mood disorders and drug or alcohol addiction. The third source has to do with normal variations in executive skills which means that though we are born with the ability to develop these skills, some develop them later than others. My personal theory in this regard is that many students are behind in this area due to having fewer nuns and structured mothers in their lives. My childhood had no shortage of either. I believe that my mother’s structure, and that imposed by the many nuns I had in parochial school, is responsible for my own organizational skills and intact executive function.

If you have a “Jesse” described above, take heart! You can help him (even without nuns and structured mothers). Psychologists Richard Guare and Peg Dawson have written two excellent books to help parents develop good executive skills in their children. The book for younger children is entitled Smart but Scattered and the books for those older is entitled Smart but Scattered Teens.

In these books, the authors offer parents very specific things to do to help your child develop these critical skills. The suggested interventions specifically address many of the issues parents experience at home with children with executive function deficits. Many people erroneously think that since executive function skills deal with the brain, it is the exclusive domain of the school to fix this problem; but, the authors focus mainly on the home where the most success can be achieved.

Some people reading this letter may believe that Jesse just needs a swift kick in the you know where.

They could be correct. Parents of children who have these deficits as a result of legitimate conditions though, know that the “kick” approach doesn’t work. If you’re in this category, I suggest you invest in the book.

Find previous Lancer Letter articles here.