Understanding Giftedness
Understanding Giftedness

Parenting Hacks (3): Cultivating Executive Functions in Twice-exceptional Students | Understanding Giftedness | HKAGE

Negative behaviours such as forgetting homework, neglecting to fill out a homework handbook, late or incomplete assignments, and emotional instability are often associated with twice-exceptional students. These deficits in executive function often hinder their ability to engage in planning and problem-solving, as well as choose and execute an appropriate response (Barkley, 2005), making it difficult for them to complete assigned tasks.

Every day, we must execute various goals and tasks, and we also face unexpected challenges. We need specific cognitive abilities to achieve these goals and tasks, and these abilities are collectively called executive function. Executive function is a self-regulating ability responsible for performing a series of goal-oriented activities, including planning and organising, flexible thinking and response to adjust the plans, and resisting external interference and inappropriate responses. (Anderson, 2002)

Twice-exceptional Students, Gifted Students

Are Executive Functions Weaker in Twice-exceptional Students?

The development of executive function in gifted and twice-exceptional students often lags behind their intellectual development. Although they have advanced cognitive reasoning abilities, their executive function are weak. They struggle to coordinate multiple tasks and are not proficient in self-monitoring and self-correction. Despite having the relevant knowledge, many gifted students often fail to submit assignments on time and perform poorly. (Trail, 2011)

Different types of twice-exceptional students have varying levels of executive dysfunction. For example, many children with executive dysfunction also face specific learning difficulties. They encounter unpredictable challenges in specific learning areas (e.g., reading or mathematics). Children with both attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have weaknesses in executive functioning skills, although each child's situation and weaknesses may differ. Additionally, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically have weaknesses in cognitive flexibility (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2008).

Further Reading: Parenting Hacks (1): Understanding Twice-exceptional Students 
Further Reading: Parenting Hacks (2): How to Nurture the Potential of Twice-exceptional Students?

Twice-exceptional Students, Gifted Students

Understanding the Concepts of 7 Executive Functions

Although different studies have proposed various lists of executive functions, the overall concepts are similar (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2008). The list presented by Dr Gioia and his colleagues includes the following concepts:

  1. Inhibition: The ability to stop behaviour at appropriate times.
    Without good inhibition, children tend to become impulsive, easily distracted, and act without considering the consequences.

  2. Shifting: The ability to freely move from one situation to another and to think flexibly and respond appropriately to new or unexpected situations.
    Individuals with weak shifting abilities often feel restricted in their behaviour or expectations and struggle to transition between activities or thought patterns.

  3. Emotional Control: The ability to understand one's own emotions and reason out the best response when strong emotions are triggered.
    Individuals with weak emotional control often experience intense, direct, and uncontrolled emotions.

  4. Initiation: The ability to start tasks or activities one after another, independently generate ideas and strategies to respond to or solve problems.
    Without good initiation, students may appear to procrastinate tasks.

  5. Working Memory: The ability to hold information in mind until a task is completed.
    We rely on working memory to remember simple information, such as a shopping list or the specific details of a math problem. For more complex tasks, such as carrying out a long-term plan, information needs to be saved from one step to another.

  6. Planning/Organisation + Organisation of Materials: The ability to plan and organise the necessary steps to achieve a goal in detail and to process different ideas and information in a sequential manner.
    Students with weak planning and organisation abilities struggle to break tasks into smaller steps to achieve goals. They also encounter difficulties in establishing a schema to organise information. They tend to remember overall facts in their minds rather than organising new information into a framework or categorising it. It's like having a filing cabinet but only opening drawers and throwing things in, rather than creating files and putting information into appropriate folders.

  7. Self-Monitoring: Monitoring one's own performance like a personal GPS system and measuring one's performance against a set of standards or expected criteria.
    Good self-monitoring is crucial for accurate self-assessment and ensures that we can correct deviant behaviours (Cooper-Kahn, 2011).

Further Reading: Parenting Hacks (4): Importance of Home-School Collaboration to Twice-exceptional Students 
Further Reading: Parenting Hacks (5): Twice-exceptional Students Can Succeed - Gifted Children with Autism 

Twice-exceptional Students, Gifted Students

Cultivating Executive Functions in Twice-exceptional Students

To cultivate executive function in children, Dr Cooper-Kahn and Dr Dietzel (2008) propose a two-pronged approach that includes both short-term and long-term strategies. The design of all short-term strategies aims to alleviate the burden on the executive function system, while long-term strategies focus on strengthening the executive function system and establishing effective self-management skills to compensate for the weaknesses in children's executive function skills. Another approach is to enhance children's executive function. Importantly, parents need to understand that the success of any task is attributed to a series of behaviours. Before identifying the sequential parts of the task that need improvement, parents can use task analysis to break down the task into smaller steps. Parents can also leverage their children's executive function by discussing their areas of expertise or praising them for using their skills effectively (Dawson, 2009).

One of the most important strategies for developing executive function is habit formation (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2008). To develop a habit, parents must teach and shape the executive function that children need, guide children on how and when to apply these skills, and then monitor and assist them in resolving difficulties. As behaviour becomes automated, they will no longer rely on the executive function system (Cooper-Kahn, 2011).

Twice-exceptional Students, Gifted Students

Enhancing Metacognitive Strategies in Twice-exceptional Students

Additionally, strengthening metacognitive strategies in twice exceptional students can help them control the learning process (Coleman, 2005). Visual organisational tools, such as preparing daily schedules, task lists, or long-term planning tools, can help them better plan their time and prioritise tasks to be completed each day. Trail (2011) summarises the components of metacognitive thinking:

  • Knowledge
    • What is the problem?
    • What are my goals?
    • What do I already know, and what do I need to learn?
    • What resources do I have available?
  • Planning
    • What steps do I need to take to achieve my goal?
    • What is the priority order for each step? How much time do I need for each step?
    • How can I schedule the steps into a timetable?
  • Monitoring
    • Am I making progress?
    • Do I need to make any changes to accomplish the plan?
  • Evaluating
    • Did I achieve my goals?
    • Does the plan reflect quality work?
    • Can the plan be completed within the scheduled time?
    • What will I do differently next time?

Long-term strategies also include the use of tools such as providing writing samples or computer programmes and software to help with planning and organising information, which can supplement deficiencies in the executive function system. (Cooper-Kahn, 2011)

Finally, while interventions are important, we must balance the need for interventions and ensure sufficient time for play, relaxation, rest, and spending time with family and friends. (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2008)

Further Reading: Special Education, Website of the Education Bureau, The Government of the HKSAR
Further Reading: 《智識遊學園——執行功能篇》EdCity Website