Monday, March 09, 2015

Late, Lost, and Unprepared, by Joyce Cooper-Kahn & Laurie Dietzel, Ph.D.

The full title of this book is Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning. This book came recommended to me as a means of offering some help or advice in dealing with some learning difficulties we are experiencing here. I hesitate to label what we have as a "learning disability" because that tends to denote something negative in people's minds and I don't think what we're dealing with is remotely crippling. Challenging sometimes? Yes! Crippling? No. Worth reading a book about to help me help my kids? Absolutely!

Your first question might be the same as mine: what is executive functioning?

From WebMD (that trusted and reliable source, I'm sure) it is defined as follows:

"Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain's frontal lobe. Executive functions work together to help a person achieve goals.

Executive function includes the ability to:
  • manage time and attention
  • switch focus
  • plan and organize
  • remember details
  • curb inappropriate speech or behavior
  • integrate past experience with present action"
Our issue has been failing to remember a set of details and instructions, instead seeming only to focus on one-step processes at a time. To give an example, I might have to say, "Go get your socks" and then wait until that task has been accomplished before I can say, "Ok, now put them on." If I were to say, "Go get your socks and shoes and put them on" the person might walk in the general direction of socks and shoes but then might stand there for awhile trying to remember the set of instructions instead of moving ahead with the task at hand (or at foot, as the case may be). Frequently it feels like I have have to think in terms of baby steps when offering instruction and I've not always been sure what the problem is or how to handle it. In reading this book I feel like I've been offered a great introduction to the idea of teaching how to build and grow my children's ability to take in information, process it and complete tasks and assignments for themselves. Now if I can just take and apply this advice, maybe we'll see some improvement!

I really appreciated reading Late, Lost, and Unprepared in large part because it is not a Debbie Downer sort of book. It is written by two women who both hold Ph.D.'s, and they say in the introduction that they have had issues of this nature with their own children and have counseled many hundreds of others for the same difficulty. Because they've personally processed how to help children to manage their own affairs, they understand that it can be hard work. This book reads in a very encouraging manner; it reads very much as if these authors actually wish you to succeed and are simply offering some advice and things to try to help you do so. They begin by saying:

"One of our most important jobs as parents is to help our kids develop a realistically positive self-image. Good self-esteem is build on a levelheaded appraisal of one's own strengths and weaknesses and a sense of competence in the world. People who view themselves as helpless, ineffective, or inferior are at risk for lifelong problems in social, emotional, and vocational functioning. On the other hand, people who deny their own weaknesses and fail to realistically appraise themselves will have an inflated view of their abilities and will be unprepared for the real world. (Chapter 4, The Child's Experience of Executive Weakness, page 33)

I definitely agree that having a realistic outlook of one's own strengths and weaknesses is enormously important. I would add that being humble about both is also rather necessary and critical. It is great to know what your strong points are as that tells you what areas you are gifted in, how you can serve others, and give life your best effort. Knowing your weaknesses keeps you honest. Honesty is a valuable commodity and, I would argue, essential for true success. Knowing where you need help and being willing to seek it out and apply other people's advice is detrimental for your soul's health and every other area you could hope to succeed in. (Hopefully by admitting that I needed to read this book I'll make some parenting progress, eh? Is that a humble question or no?)

The authors of this book focus a lot on creating short term training solutions to promote long-term success in a child's ability to thrive independently. While it is true that a person who has executive dysfunction can likely make their way around in the world without anyone's help, the authors (and myself) would argue that such children will be better prepared to manage themselves well as adults if their parents help develop their ability to self-discipline when they are young. To develop such self-discipline and focus, they truly do need the help of parents (or guardians or teachers, etc.). Certainly I think that if parents are willing to address a child's strengths and weaknesses and offer instruction from a very early age, the frustration levels in many areas of society are greatly decreased.

Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel say this:

"If we only focus on short-term goals with our kids, then we are only doing half our job. It is also important to provide the explicit teaching and practice vital to increasing their executive competence. Building skills can be done with help from parents, teachers, tutors, therapists and other important adults." (Chapter 8, How to Help: An Overview, page 78)

The idea in training children is that they will ultimately be able to be self-governing, responsible, and independent adults. Our purpose in raising our kids as always been to teach them to think for themselves so that they can become productive, useful, thinking, successful (and happy!) adults who are capable of doing great things. It was good to see that Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel suggest the same. They aren't writing with the idea of creating helicopter parents but to give parents healthy ideas and suggestions for training their children up so that when they are old they will know what to do to succeed for themselves. (Let me briefly interject that this is not a religious book but a secular one in case any of you out there are wondering.)

The second half of the book focuses almost exclusively on the practical "how-to" teach and guide your children so that they can carry themselves well. Some of the ideas that they include for helping children learn to take in information and then sort, process and apply to their lives is to:

- Give chore charts.
- Lower expectations to a level that is attainable at the present.
- Keep instructions simple.
- Establish a regular routine for accomplishing any number of tasks so that the child can learn through repetition.
- Be consistent.
- Follow through on what you say you will do to help your child out.
- Encourage them and cheer them on when you see even the slightest bit of change for the better.
- Examine your own life and see if you are the one making it more difficult for them to work through tasks and manage things themselves. (i.e., Are you disorderly yourself!?)

Personally, I felt convicted about not having a steady, more predictable daily schedule for our kids. Yes, we do some of the same things every single day but we really don't have a particular Order of the Day that we follow which leaves them in a perpetual state of wondering, "What Will Happen Next?". I tell myself that I like the variety but I know that my children would "perform" better if I would lay out expectations for them that they could understand and relax into. I think that's a fair assessment and I hereby purpose to create a predictable "program" for our days that they can more easily follow along with.

I also liked Cooper-Kahn's and Dietzel's suggestion to set a timer to help keep kids on tasks. We tend to do that only when a child has failed to accomplish a task and needs a ticking motivator to do so. I think a timer would help set expectations up appropriately so that we wouldn't have as many harried and hurried moments in the end. If I were more specific with our schedule for the day and time allotments, I can see them being able to focus on the jobs at hand. Upon reflection, I can see how I tend to leave things open ended, leaving them wondering if they need to hurry to get a job done or take a more, um, leisurely approach. What I'm saying is that, by examining my own life, even though I approach things in a manner that suits me and which I understand, it comes across as a great mystery to the little people. That's not very fair to them as they are trying to be part of a team and do their part. As I say, I'll be getting right on that Schedule for the Day. It's the right thing to do for them. It makes perfect sense to me that if you are repeating a schedule, a young person will more easily catch on to what the plan is and will learn to follow along and do what is asked of them, quite willingly and happily! Predictable structure would be a better thing for our family with the ages they are at, I think. Anyway, I'll be working on that!

Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel offer the following advice and encouragement which I will end with for purposes of this post (and purposes of encouraging myself):

Expect slow progress with ups and downs along the way. if you have ever tried to lose weight, then you know how slow behavior change can be. If you have been successful at losing weight, you have learned to set realistic goals, to celebrate small victories, and to recover when you have a set back. These are principles that guide all behavior change." (Chapter 9, Behavior Change in a Nutshell, page 89)

It is going to take a little time for us to shift in our thinking so that we can navigate life all together more easily. As I sort of mentioned, in our family we talk a lot about being a team. We're all in this together. When one member struggles, we all struggle. Being given a resource that helps to encourage and advice according to the particular issues we've been facing has proved vastly encouraging to me personally. (It has also proved enlightening! I wouldn't have pegged myself as one who is so disorderly in a systematic approach to things themselves.) Taking things slow, rearranging and then ordering life is something I shall prayerfully and practically go about doing.

Honestly, I wasn't quite sure whether or not I really wanted to "review" Late, Lost, and Unprepared on the blog, given the more personal nature of what it means to me. But then again, I figured other parents out there might be struggling with some of the same issues. This is a relatively short book (203 pages), is thoughtfully laid out to allow you to read it in short snippets if your reading time is limited. It gives practical, encouraging advice and who doesn't want that?! I'm glad to have read it and would happily recommend it to others if they felt they had a need.


Stephanie Kay said...

Sounds interesting. I can definitely pick out my child who is a whiz at this (she actually created symbols to write on her calendar for when she should do various tasks!) and my child who is NOT.

We have a daily routine or order of tasks. Breakfast, chores, school, lunch, quiet time, play time, clean up, supper, bedtime. It really does help everyone know what to expect as we move through our day. Meals and snacks are the only thing tied to a specific time.

Barbara H. said...

Very interesting! I had heard of the issue but hadn't heard it called that.

Cassandra said...

Like Stephanie, we've been advised to have a predictable routine every day but not specific times. That way our daughter will know what comes next at all times. Some days it may take us longer to work through the schedule and that's ok. But it should help her to know the order things will happen. First this, then this, then this. It will become habit.

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