Executive Functioning Fatigue

Executive functioning refers to a “set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior” – in other words, according to Executive Functioning Coach Seth Perler, “getting things done”.

I had vaguely heard about the importance of executive functioning as an elementary school teacher – but I got my degree in general education rather than special education or educational psychology, so it was never prominent, and I was never taught any strategies to help my students manage their own executive functioning skills.

Thankfully, I was formally reintroduced to the power and importance of executive functioning from my parenting hat, when I attended a SENG parent support group and started exploring twice-exceptionality. Executive functioning turns out to be a really, really big deal for most twice-exceptional kids – as in, crucial to their success, and nearly always a challenge.

Unfortunately, as “basic” as executive functioning is, it’s also incredibly complicated – much like reading. If reading “comes naturally” to you (like it did for me), then it doesn’t seem so hard – but if it doesn’t, and your kids or your students are struggling, then you suddenly realize how complex reading really is, and a whole world of research and intervention techniques await exploration.

Back to executive functioning, one of my favorite sayings is “things get done by doing them”: not by saying you’ll do them, not by hoping you’ll do them, and not by scheduling them to get done; only by actually doing them do they get done. I can’t count the number of times I’ve ended up saying this to various members of my household – myself included! – out of frustration, resignation, and/or compassion (hopefully plenty of the latter).

Indeed, everyone in my family struggles with executive functioning to one degree or another – including my husband. At 49 years old, he long ago learned to mask or overcome his deficits and proceed with the life he wanted (college, a solid career, marriage, kids) but his executive functioning challenges are still present, causing him – and me – occasional grief.

Meanwhile, none of my three twice-exceptional kids seem to have the straight-forward ability to simply “get their schoolwork done”. Because I was such a neurotic child myself – terrified of making mistakes and being less than “perfect” at school – it’s hard for me to relate to the type of giftedness my kids exhibit: plenty of complexity, intensity, and drive, but not necessarily directly related to their assigned work. I’m glad they don’t struggle with obsessive fears around not turning things in or getting perfect scores, but I also want them to develop a healthy sense of responsibility and agency.

How do I create the right balance, especially when each one of my kids is so different?

Well, first I need to ensure that their ability to “get things done” isn’t inhibited by the vast array of potential (often hidden) logistical challenges that might be getting in the way, including those related to:

  • planning
  • time management
  • organization
  • prioritizing
  • decision making
  • details
  • transitions
  • self-starting
  • follow-through

Whoa. This is a lot.

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually amazing that any of us gets anything done. How exactly do we learn to plan ahead, manage our time, organize our thoughts (and our things), prioritize tasks, make decisions (every second! every minute! every hour! every day!), pay attention to (the right) details, transition successfully from one task to another, and get started on something while following through on it to (sufficient) completion?

It turns out that I have my own set of internal rules and guidelines I seem to follow for “getting things done” – not always “perfectly” (there’s no such thing), and not without grief and distress, but well enough that I fool the world into thinking I have things pretty together.

I titled this post “Executive Functioning Fatigue” because, frankly, I’m fatigued by the number of executive functioning challenges that seem to get in the way of my kids’ schooling success each day. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), when I did an internet search for “twice exceptional” and “fatigue”, what came up was how tiring it is for kids to deal with their executive functioning challenges – but it’s tiring on parents, too, whether we’re helping our kids manage from home, and/or trying to navigate relationships with teachers and assignments from afar. I struggle with multiple choices every day in terms of how much and in what ways to help each of my kids (or not)which in itself is known to be fatiguing.

Here are just some of the challenges I’ve faced in recent weeks and months, with just one of my kids (my oldest, C., in middle school):

  • Do I insist on C. sitting next to me (or in view of me) while she’s engaging in her online learning, to ensure she’s “on task”? Or do I allow her to continue sitting comfortably in her bed (which she prefers)? (I have three kids to supervise, and my own work to get done, in addition to pretty significant challenges of my own with focusing while others are around me – so, this is far from a simple decision to make.)  
  • Do I follow up with C. each day about her assignments in each of her six classes? Each week? Do I trust her to know what’s due? (This has very often led us down a path of false assurance, but/and it’s exhausting each and every time I dive in to help her check. I inevitably end up dipping into my own energy bank, which leaves me depleted for other tasks.) 
  • Do I disengage and simply allow C. do the amount of work she “wants” to do, knowing that ultimately she’ll be fine in life no matter what, as long as we love and support her? (No; I can’t quite do this. We’re not unschooling. That requires a whole other game plan.)  
  • How often and in what way do I communicate with C.’s teachers? Do I subtly (or not so subtly) remind them about her 504 plan, and the explicit support she needs to be successful in school? (The quick answer is, yes. I force myself to get over my reluctance and start these conversations, and I do mention her 504 while also providing plenty of authentic thanks to her teachers for the hard work they do each day.)  

Meanwhile, I have plans in motion for C. to work with an executive functioning coach in the summer, once a spot opens up for her with a local clinic and she has the time to commit to this – and I’m grateful that executive functioning coaches are apparently more and more common at all levels of schooling these days (even college).

On my own end, I’m trying to acknowledge and empathize with my “executive functioning fatigue” – while ensuring I’m not just giving up or in denial. Specifically, I’m reaching out to parent-friends who can sympathize with that I’m going through; poking my head back into Seth Perler’s website; and getting ready to commit some more time to digesting and manifesting one executive functioning strategy at a time as a parent-coach, for each of my kids.

In other words, I’m focusing on getting things done – with plenty of humility for how hard this work really is, for all of us.

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