Is there really an executive functioning problem?

With the start of another school year quickly approaching, I cannot resist from commenting on the growing problem, or shall I say perceived problem, with our young kids acquiring executive functioning skills. Executive functioning, the new buzzword in education, is set of mental skills that get things done. Executive functioning skills help one manage time, prioritize tasks, organize belongings, plan ahead, pay attention, and remember details. 

The ongoing discussions and concern regarding young children’s lack of executive functioning skills is troublesome. The research on executive functioning development does not support that we begin to teach and expect our younger children to attain these organizational skills beyond their developmental capacity. In fact, research suggest that these skills are not fully developed until we reach mid-twenties. While we want our children to be prepared for high school, college, graduate school, and their careers, we cannot fast forward this developmental process and start teaching these skills in the elementary years before the children are brain ready or socially ready to do so.    

I would argue that the increased anxiety we see in children, in addition to the lack of executive functioning skills we witness, is a product of the elevated pressures and demands we as parents, educators, and coaches are placing on our children. It’s all an accelerated race to ‘get to the next level’. Common Core Curriculum – raise the standards, stakes, and student expectations to get our students college and career ready. Travel athletics and specialization beginning at age eight – treat our young athletes like collegiate or professional athletes so they are better prepared for this possible jump in eight to ten years. 

In short, the real problem is not with our children, but rather with the adults, who are placing unrealistic demands that are not developmentally appropriate for our children. After a full day of school with little to no recess, physical education class, or fine arts curriculum, in addition to hours of instruction mainly centered around math and language arts where students are asked to solve complex equations and extrapolate factual information from non-fiction texts, our young kids are rushed off to a two hour travel baseball or softball practice. There, some dad or ex-collegiate athlete, dressed in flashy gear and Oakley sunglasses, yells at our kids for two hours and treats them as if they were ten years older. After all this nonsense, we rush home, eat a quick dinner with high contents of fat, salt, and sugar because it’s quick and easy, and try to get them focus for one to two hours of homework before bed.

Looking at the scenario above, of course we see a lack of executive functioning skills in our young kids! They are just not able to handle the raised expectations and demands we are throwing at them. The real problem is not with our children, but rather with the adults. After all, twenty years ago nobody was talking about executive functioning, or lack thereof. 

I think we can see why.