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Parents can help their gifted students develop executive functions

Bright kids are often organizationally-challenged. In fact, the brighter they are, the more likely it is that they will have issues with organization. Some of the typical behaviors found in gifted students who are organizationally challenged include not being able to manage time well and losing important papers or possessions. Many of them have difficulty with transitions. They get completely absorbed in what they are doing and don’t want to move on—whether it’s dinnertime, time to go to bed, time to change activities at home or at school, or time to go home. They often skip steps in multi-step processes and have problems with identifying important information when taking notes.

If you have a child who fits this description, it might be useful to understand executive functions. Executive functions are defined by Rush NeuroBehavioral Center as “cognitive processes that allow people to plan, organize, make decisions, pay attention and regulate behavior.”

Problems with executive functions typically lead to difficulties with self-concept, both personal and academic. No matter how high their abilities, some gifted kids simply don’t feel good about themselves. And parents, teachers and counselors who misguidedly try to reassure or praise them find their efforts to be in vain. These kids are frequently frustrated and have very little tolerance for their own errors. They have trouble dealing with their expectations of themselves and their expectations of others.

Additionally, other people in their lives have trouble understanding the inability of these bright kids to get things done or to be able to express their thoughts and feelings accurately. They frequently make impulsive decisions and decisions that lack depth. Long-term goals elude them. In fact, they often simply don’t know how to establish goals.

The good news is that executive functions can be developed. It is very useful for parents to consider strategies that are particularly tailored to help gifted kids become organized and honor their need to have control over as many aspects of their lives as possible.


Do

Do understand why gifted kids are often organizationally challenged

Among the reasons for this is that gifted kids have good memories and, for a while, are able to rely on remembering where they saw something last. In addition, they have so many interests and so many things going on at once that their lives simply spin out of control. Also, gifted individuals are typically internally motivated and resist all external efforts to get them to conform to anyone else’s ideas of how they should live their lives. Furthermore, they generally are unaware of the knowledge and/or lack the skills that would help them be more organized.

Do use color-coding

Encourage kids to use different colored notebooks, folders, index cards, markers or stickers for different categories of things they need to keep track of in their lives. Kids need to figure out what these categories might be and decide which colors should be used for which. Some kind of chart or “key” can be posted on the wall of their room or in some other convenient location, such as the kitchen, bathroom or inside their locker door at school. They should decide whether/where the chart should be posted.

Do recognize how timers and alarms can be helpful

Use a wind-up or electronic timer to keep track of when it is time to change activities, quit doing whatever they are doing or for whatever purpose they think might be most useful for them. Some kids like to play “beat the clock” by setting a timer for doing some of their least favorite chores or tasks, and seeing if they can finish before the timer goes off.

When using timers, set a “trial run” for a week. Then, talk about how it is working and/or what modifications they might want to implement to make this work better for them.

Give kids an alarm watch and teach them how to set it. Then, they can brainstorm some of the situations in which it might be useful to have it go off to remind them of what they need to do at a particular time and then make a list of the ones they want to use. They also can decide how much of an advance warning they need. Just as with using a timer, it is a good idea to set a trial run for a week and talk with kids about how it is working and/or what they might like to change.

Do purchase an appointment book, agenda or calendar

Some kids like to have a hands-on calendar for all of their activities and appointments. Kids can also use it for notes about things to do, addresses and other things they want to remember. An appointment book can either be one they carry with them or the kind that hangs on the wall. Gifted students typically have jam-packed schedules, and having a system for them to keep track of what they are supposed to be doing is essential for helping them manage their lives.

In addition, post a master calendar in a prominent place, such as on the door of the refrigerator. Teachers who post a master calendar for the entire class can help those students who are organizationally challenged without calling undue attention to them as individuals.

Do employ technology

Most gifted kids love using technology and are good at doing so.
Smartphones, iPads/tablets and computers can be synced with each other or used independently as “stand alone” devices. There are several ways that kids can organize their lives using technology:

  • Electronic signals. Use along the same lines as timers and alarm watches for reminders/alerts
  • Calendar functions. Keep track of dates on a Smartphone, tablet and/or computer. This is especially good for appointments, due dates and other calendar events, with reminders as far ahead of time as kids would like to be reminded of each.
  • Contacts. Phone numbers and addresses (email and snail mail) can all be kept electronically, and the devices all have search functions that make the information easy to find.
  • Notes and reminders. Notes, to do’s and all kinds of miscellaneous information that would get lost if it were on scraps of paper can be kept electronically. These items also can be color-coded using whatever system kids find most useful for their purposes.
  • Podcasts. An unbelievable assortment of useful information is available free for downloading as podcasts. These can be accessed directly on the computer or on a smartphone, iPod, iPad or other tablet for mobile listening whenever and wherever might be most convenient.


Don't

Do not underestimate the need to look to role models and mentors

Help kids find out how some successful adults choose to organize their lives. Encourage them to find a wide range of methods and choose those that they believe would be useful. A related idea is to look at the lives of remarkable individuals from history, such as Leonardo da Vinci, and find out how they kept their lives organized. Then, imagine what those people might have done today if they had the resources available to them that are available now, including technology.

Do not overlook the importance of creative problem solving

The Creative Problem Solving Model is a tried and true method for breaking complex problems into manageable stages. It begins with the Mess (now called Objective Finding) and proceeding through Fact Finding, Problem Finding, Idea Finding, Solution Finding and Acceptance Finding.

The Creative Problem Solving approach is especially helpful for getting gifted kids beyond the simple pleasures of brainstorming ideas and on to actually selecting and implementing solutions. The following website provides a quick overview:
http://www.creativeeducationfoundation.org/our-process/what-is-cps

Do not forget to avoid behavior modification

Gifted kids see right through attempts to manipulate them with reward systems. Furthermore, you may be unintentionally teaching kids to manipulate others. Also, some gifted kids have already figured out more about how to do this than is healthy for them and the others in their lives. In addition, gifted kids typically modify reward systems to the point where no adult can follow through on them.

Do not offer direct praise

Instead of direct praise, focus on using phrases that allow kids to own their own successes. For example, say, “It looks like you put a lot of effort into this” and “You can be really proud of yourself.” Avoid saying, “I’m proud of you” which suggests that kids should be doing what they are doing solely to win your love and acceptance.

Describe what you are noticing when you see improvements, especially small improvements, subtly conveying your approval through your tone of voice without using too many words—since that can shut down a youngster’s beginning steps toward becoming more organized.

Do not implement too many ideas at once

Remember to start small and avoid trying to implement too many ideas at once. Choose two or three ideas that you think might be especially appealing to your child and present these approaches first, allowing your child to chose one to take on a “test drive.”

Then, after a suitable time interval, sit down together and talk about how it is going, make modifications as needed and go from there. If you happen to have your own issues with organization, you might think about making this a joint project in which you each try one or two of these suggestions. And then share your results with each other.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Regardless of how much you may want gifted children to become more organized and develop their executive functions, it is vital to remember that kids have their own agenda. Your influence may be more limited than you would like. Therefore, in talking with kids, you can begin by acknowledging this.

When trying to help gifted kids who are having problems with organization, always remember to involve them in the process. Help them articulate what is going on for them and use active listening, reflecting on what you hear them saying about how they feel. Ask them what they might need to make things better for themselves, and if they have any thoughts about how you might assist them. Then, listen some more.

It is helpful to remember that some of us (and therefore, some of our kids) work better under pressure and cope better than others with what appears to be chaos and confusion. In general, developing executive functions results in less anxiety--for kids and certainly for the grown-ups in their lives.


More expert advice about Raising Gifted Kids

Photo Credits: © HaywireMedia - Fotolia.com; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Dr. Ellen D. Fiedler, Ph.D.Educational Consultant / Professor Emerita

Dr. Ellen D. Fiedler, Professor Emerita from the Master in Arts in Gifted Education (M.A.G.E.) program at Northeastern Illinois University, is currently a private educational consultant. She regularly provides professional development for school...

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