Early in my teaching career, I was stationed at a school in Stamford called King that proffered education to kids who were fairly intelligent, but really were there because they could afford the tuition. The kids typically had some “extra-curricular” issues that slowed them in their learning. It was a minefield of issues: ADHD, LD, ASD, and especially prevalent: anxiety. To the school’s credit, they offered a Department of Teaching a Learning and developed individual learning profiles on all the students to help the teachers, as the teachers would have been overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of challenges. Overworked teachers rely on homogeneity, you see, so they can utilize shortcuts and generalize their program, but that wasn’t possible. The school provided many professional development sessions educating the teachers on these issues and how to address them, namely, differentiated instruction, or providing a diversity of assessment types for kids with alternative learning profiles. But ultimately, it was never enough. You can educate a teacher until they have blue gills, but if you stick them in a room with a hippopotamus, a tiger, a piranha and a rabbit and close the door, things are not going to go very well. So ultimately, the kids with extra-curricular struggles simply failed. Anxiety ran a rampant course. I did what I could for as many kids as I could, but one teacher can only do so much. While sad, it was valuable to me in that it demonstrated what happens how kids who are otherwise intelligent can fail so badly.
One such lad was named…. let’s say, Steven. Steven was a genius. He had read War and Peace when he was seven. He perused trade journals on computer design for fun in his spare time. He also had written whole unpublished books on obscure subjects like three-dimensional fantasy game design and vertical crystallography. He leaned more toward the STEM subjects and could have easily won the state Math & Science competition if he had joined the team. But he didn’t. He didn’t.
He wasn’t exactly ruggedly handsome– more of a mousy face, average in stature and had curly brown hair that dipped sporadically over his eyes, and an unusually large amount of scraggly facial hair for a 17 year-old. He certainly wasn’t athletic, a little soft in the middle, in fact. He fulfilled the athletic requirement through club sports and off-campus activities. No, his identity definitely surrounded his intellect and sharp wit. He had a few scattered friends in the alternative crowd including one, an asian girl with a purple stripe in her hair. He had a nervous facial twitch that was fairly severe but never diagnosed, this never treated as a condition it anxiety, yet even the most untrained of armchair psychologists could recognize he had clinical anxiety.
He was a genius… and he was failing his classes.
He never did the reading for the class: I think he considered it beneath him, either that or he couldn’t get started on it, or perhaps both. He also consistently didn’t even bring the book with him to class. He hadn’t turned in an essay all semester when we reached late November, and as a result of lack of preparation and an innate timid personality, he almost never participated in class discussion.
The reasons for his failure were myriad, and anxiety played no small role, but can all be grouped under the term Executive Function, or the group of complex mental processes that allow to plan, organize, focus, and juggle multiple tasks. In other words, it’s the set of psychological skills that allow you to achieve set goals.
He couldn’t initiate tasks like reading or beginning an essay, so he didn’t do them. It didn’t matter that his intellect would have produced a masterpiece. He had no skills for managing materials, so he consistently misplaced his book. He couldn’t stay focused on class activity, so he drifted off, and he also never asked for help, which I would argue is an executive skill, as well. Without these critical functions, he could have been sharper than Stephen Hawking, but it wouldn’t have mattered.
If we think about our own professional lives, it’s fairly obvious how critical these psychological functions are. If I lacked the ability to turn in my grades and comments as a teacher, or never remembered to do my reading, or had temper tantrums without regulating myself, it wouldn’t go very well. If I worked in an office setting and forgot to bring my computer to my pitch meeting, or spaced out in a critical meeting when I was called on to provide insight, or missed meetings with potential clients, that wouldn’t go well either. Even if I were the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, if I failed at those basic functions, I couldn’t get out the door.
In other words, executive skills are just as important to success as the actual academics….
And yet you won’t find them in any curriculum at any school, not in any formal way. Perhaps a teacher provides it in an unofficial way, by breaking an assignment into pieces; maybe there’s even a “Department of Teaching and Learning” at your school that’s devoted to filling the holes in the dam, if you’re lucky; but ultimately these skills are an afterthought in formalized education. If a kid fails to plan effectively, he’s a slacker. If he has outbursts in class, he’s a spazz. If he can’t speak to the teacher, it’s a personal failing. In fact, they are all viewed in this light.
The exchange between executive function and anxiety is incredibly complex because they are so closely intertwined. I would argue it’s essentially impossible to parse them out. Do kids who lose focus on class activities lose focus because of a purely neurological disregulation? Or do they do so because they are anxious about their ability to understand the material? Does a student who struggles to initiate an essay do so because they lack that skill or because they have intense anxiety about making that essay perfect? You are essentially asking the same question, as the answer likely involves both.
Yet at the same time, the presence of anxiety is so overtly obvious, as are EF skill deficiencies, that it’s difficult to deny the presence of them as autonomous entities. They are perhaps best imagined as easily identifiable lenses with distinct angles to view the same organic subject. Kids with anxiety that is moderate to severe can be fairly obvious to recognize in many cases— as many teachers describe it, it ‘drips off of them.’ A kid preoccupied by fear typically can’t hide for long. Likewise, a student with poor organization is quickly identified by the backpack full of loose leaf materials, dogeared and tattered. But they aren’t necessarily attached. Often that loose leaf kid is a little less concerned he maybe should be.
I’m other words, there is a complex inter-relation between these two worlds that often needs extrapolation to determine the root cause and subsequently, the best way to address it and coach the kid through it.
Ultimately, Steven was viewed as a nonconformist slacker savant. He was too lazy and uninterested to do well in school according to the other teachers. He ended up taking a gap year, and I’m not sure what happened to him. There’s a fair portion of the young population that end up wandering through the late teens and early twenties doing… not very much. If he found his way to higher education, where he should have been if things had gone differently, it was through a bit of luck. More likely, he ended up halfway somewhere and halfway somewhere else. He ended up a wandering soul, and he’s probably still there in that liminal space, with worry dominating his life housed in an underground reservoir.
But what if we did it differently? What if these psychological gaps weren’t viewed as personal shortcomings permanently limiting young students as unsolvable attitude problems? What if we classified them as skills to be taught as any other and drilled them as such? What if we better understood the complex interaction between anxiety and executive function on an institutional level? It’s an adjustment that would lead to a societal shift in which people like Steven would be working in think tanks and not at the local convenience store reliving sad, dead dreams.
There are a number of ways to classify exactly what skills are involved when we talk about executive function, though there is some consensus about it as well. I would argue that there are ten key executive functions critical to completing a focused goal.
Task initiation is the ability to begin a large task and avoid procrastination. It’s key in that if you never take that first step forward, you can be stuck in neutral in perpetuity. Anxiety can play a critical role, as avoidance is a typical characteristic.
Transitioning is the ability to compartmentalize, to switch fluidly from one task to the next without getting stuck in one mindset to the point that you can’t go on to something else. Anxiety can interrupt this process.
Working memory is the function in the brain that holds key information at the front of attention and can manipulate and utilize it while it’s there right in the conscious mind. Likewise, anxiety can make this juggling act nearly impossible.
Planning is the ability to use a calendar or planner to accomplish tasks and to make it to meetings and other events. Without planning (or an excess of it!), those with anxiety become unhinged.
Organization is the ability to management key materials in a linear or logical fashion to be able to quickly and efficiently access them. Similarly, this is a necessary ability to curb anxiety, or can cause it to run amok.
Self-monitoring behavior refers to the ability to reflect on our behavior in a context by reading cues and developing an awareness of self and acting appropriately. Social anxiety can turn this into quite a mess.
Controlling impulses is a prefrontal cortex function that involves pausing to think a moment before actually acting on immediate internal suggestion. Those with anxiety can appear highly impulsive, but it may be the result of other preoccupations.
Sustained attention/(ADHD) is the ability to focus on a particular task, topic or conversation as it relates to the context it is a part of. A student with ADHD would naturally struggle with attention. Attention span and anxiety have a complex relationship as one may result in the other.
Time Management refers to the ability to spend an appropriate amount of time completing sub-tasks in completing a larger task. Underdeveloped skills in this area can cause tremendous anxiety, particularly when taking a test.
Advocating for Self Refers to the ability of politely but firmly forwarding our own needs to others in appropriate settings confidently. Anxiety almost universally lies in a diminished sense of self worth, a cornerstone of advocating.
We will be releasing a course designed to address all of these skills for kids with anxiety in November, so please check back. In the meantime, if you have questions, please let us know.