This episode is going to shake up your brain a little bit…in a good way. We’re going to explore a question that probably floats around in your brain every day: Why is my kid, who is so smart, failing at school? Or you may even have a similar concern for yourself: you know you’re capable but sometimes the daily, nearly automatic tasks for others really elude you.
Years ago, I had a student named Aubrie, who was by all accounts brilliant. Engage her in a discussion about nearly anything, and she lit up with questions and ideas—often challenging me to reexamine my own understandings! She was one impressive fourth grader! Yet, most of our conversations took place in the school’s office, as she waiting to explain to the principal, yet again, why she was kicked out or missing recess. Aubrie was a kid, like so many in our EF Tribe, who had the necessary smarts but didn’t yet play the school game.
Aubrie often became restless with the pace of class and would shout out answers in an attempt to move lessons along (here she was struggling with impulse control and attention). She would finish her work and homework but forget to turn it in (an issue with organization and planning). And she often became emotional and would cry or yell when others interrupted her intense focus or if the daily schedule had to change unexpectedly (emotional regulation and flexible thinking at work). She presented as the opposite of what teachers expect.
Teachers want students who can use impulse control and manage their attention to bear through boring lessons without interrupting. Teachers expect students to “listen” and “follow directions” the first time they are stated and become particularly irritated if a student can’t follow a routine that most other kids can follow (and in lots of ways, this makes sense. It can really look like a choice or a “bad behavior” from the outside if only one student isn’t doing what the others almost automatically do). Teachers want students who can be flexible and unemotional when changes take place. Aubrie needed help.
After some initial observations and discussions with Aubrie and her teacher, I listed the “behaviors” that seemed most troublesome to Aubrie’s learning and the teacher’s lessons. The first thing the teacher wanted to address was the shouting out, as it was a disruption and particularly irritating to the teacher (because, ya know, we’re human). Then, I took it back to Aubrie with some questions. “What do you think your teacher expects students to look and sound like when she’s teaching?” “Why would your teacher need students to be quiet during a lesson?” “What do you think you look and sound like during lessons?”
It turned out Aubrie really underestimated how often she interrupted! We had her tally each time she shouted an answer, question, or comment in a 30 minute period. Aubrie was shocked to see how often she was interrupting. Then, recognizing that Aubrie still had a need to express her thoughts and maintain engagement with a slower paced lesson, Aubrie and I brainstormed some ways she could state her answers without making sounds. She chose to keep a notebook near her to write the answers and doodle a little during lessons, to keep her mind busy but engaged in the lesson. For math, the teacher switched to writing silent answers on student whiteboards for the whole class —a great way for her to assess student understanding and limit interruptions!
So, back to today’s question: Why is your so smart child failing at school? The long and the short of it is success in today’s world relies on executive function. The EF skills (organizing, planning, self-control, emotional regulation, flexible thinking, and attention) provide a set of tools for maneuvering and adjusting through life today and in planning for the future. The bad news here is EF skills are not just a “given” for so many of us; often there are brain differences to account for their absence, and these brain differences can make it extra tricky to learn and use EF skills. (I’ll teach you all about the brain science in future episodes!) The good news is that learning EF skills is possible and rewarding, and I’m here to show you how!
Today I want to teach you that Executive function is expected but not usually taught, and when it’s lacking, it’s often seen as a misbehavior. This means your child’s teacher is expecting him to have the skills he needs from the minute he walks in on the first day of school! And, when your child does not have an expected skill, her teachers may interpret this as “bad behavior” or “non-compliance.”
Here’s the part that I want to challenge in each of you: when you, as a teacher, parent, partner, or friend, notice someone you love not meeting the expectations you have for them, do you condemn them or do you stop to wonder? Do you assume the person doesn’t care or do you reflect on what he or she may not know yet in order to meet your needs?
Our assumptions matter immensely when we are thinking about an undesirable behavior or a struggle with our kids. If we assume it’s a choice, that the child is choosing to not do what we ask or is trying to make us angry, we will react accordingly: probably become angry, increase the emotional tone, or maybe try punishments in response.
But, if we assume it’s a missing skill, we may respond more rationally, explaining the challenge and looking for solutions with our kids.
Let’s think about Aubrie again. Her teacher assumed she was interrupting to be a jerk. She punished Aubrie and continued an angry dance for a few months (consequently sending Aubrie out of class, where she ended up falling behind on assignments and feeling isolated from the class). When I came in and assumed Aubrie needed some help, we were able to tackle each challenge by teaching Aubrie the needed executive function skills and providing some additional support for weak-but-growing skills. Aubrie’s teacher and peers noticed the positive changes, as did Aubrie herself, and success became an upward spiral for her!
Specific steps: This week, I challenge you to step out of reaction mode and stop to wonder. When your child “misbehaves” with you or gets in trouble at school, ask the following questions:
Is this a pattern? Do I hear myself (or the teacher) complaining about the same issue over and over?
Which executive function skills am I asking my child to use in this situation?
Could my child be lacking a skill, and if so, which one (be as specific as possible here)?
If there are lots of misbehaviors you can think of, try making a top-3 list. You can prioritize by the most prevalent, most annoying, or most impacting your child’s day.
You can download a reflection sheet to help you get started with this week’s challenge. Go to Sarahkesty.com/episode2 and get it!
Missing executive function skills are an opportunity to learn and grow; they are not bad behaviors or reasons to punish a child. This week’s challenge may have you wondering what you are going to teach your child and will hopefully bring you closer to a realization one of my coaching clients recently shared: “These kids are like puzzles, not problems. I’m not annoyed anymore, I’m intrigued. I want to know what else I can figure out with them.”
Sarahkesty.com/episode2 is where you’ll find this week’s challenge reflection sheet.
Pep talk: Time to grab your kid for this week’s pep talk.
Hey, kid. Glad you’re here because I need to tell you three teacher secrets.
The first one is that teachers don’t know everything. Crazy, right? But it’s true. They can’t tell when you’re doing your best or when you didn’t get enough breakfast or when you just had an argument with your friend and don’t feel like learning. They also don’t know what you don’t know. That means when they ask you to do something, they expect you to do it—even when you don’t know how. I’ve heard so many teachers tell their students to “focus,” but I haven’t seen very many teachers show students how to actually focus. So many teachers tell students to “study harder,” but those same teachers can’t even tell me what steps to take to study at all.
The second teacher secret is that teachers love teaching. They spend lots of time getting lessons ready and have lots they want to do with you. So, if you interrupt or take too long to do something, they get really mad sometimes. It’s not that they are angry with you in particular; often it’s that they’re angry the lesson didn’t go like they thought it would or that they ran out of time for the really fun thing they had planned. Teachers really care about getting knowledge into your brain. Sometimes teachers aren’t so flexible things don’t go like they thought they would.
The last teacher secret is that they all expect students to be good at playing the school game. They want you to know how to sit quietly, follow directions, and all the other things they make as rules. Your teachers were probably naturally really good at looking and sounding and acting like students, so they can’t understand when you have a hard time with those things.
Be patient with your teachers. They’re learning too. It’s okay if you want to speak up for yourself, explain what you need, or even suggest strategies to use in class. School is tough for some kids because it’s a place where you sometimes can’t be your whole self. Little by little, though, you can find ways to make learning work for you! You got this, kid! See you next week!