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Smart But Scattered: Part 2 of Interview with authors Dick Guare and Peg Dawson

Yvette Vignando: How soon can parents expect their child to be able to independently organise or plan their school work?

Peg Dawson: It depends on the complexity of the schoolwork. Teachers are often very good at making those adjustments for kids …so in the early years it’s less of an issue.  As kids get older, there’s often a mismatch between teacher expectations and what the child is able to produce.  …  It is unrealistic to expect an eleven-year-old to be able to (break a project down into multiple sections and work out deadlines independently).  Some can, but a lot can’t and it’s not okay to hold those kids accountable to standards that only a few of the kids are able to achieve.  

Dick Guare: …it really does depend on what the task demands are in terms of executive skills.  But in general, we think of the early adolescent level, twelve, thirteen-years-old, as the time they begin to take on multiple assignments and multiple subjects, to manage their homework and be able to get started on their homework on their own.  

And is a child’s capacity to plan and organise affected by some of the changes of adolescence, like changes in hormones or brain development?

Dick: I’d say that it does. For example, the importance of the social group in determining what’s a priority for students, how they spend their time… You may have good planning and organisation skills, but if your priority is to engage your peer group as opposed to engaging in some sort of academic task, then I think both in terms of brain development and in terms of social development, those issues will at least interfere if not override other executive skills.  

Should parents step back and leave them to their own devices?

Peg: No, I don’t think you can.  Of course, being a teenager today (is different, with) many attractive alternatives to doing homework … So in a sense we require kids to make harder choices today about how they spend their time than kids a generation or two ago.  So parents really do need to still be involved in helping kids decide whether now is the time to have their cell phone or to be on the Internet, or is there something else they need to be doing.  It gets tricky, because kids at that age don’t want their parents providing that level of supervision.  And that’s what makes it particularly challenging for parents.  

What about the response inhibition area of executive skills.  How soon could a parent expect their child would act reasonably in response to having strong emotions?  

Peg: There is brain research that’s coming out now about risk taking…what they are finding is that that particular executive skill, …is actually one of the last skills to become fully mature.  And in fact, the brain development in an adolescent is that your thinking skills, your ability to reason to get a problem solved, is actually more advanced (particularly in the early teens) than your ability to control your impulses.  So you can have a wonderful, rational discussion with your youngster about good decision making when they are out with their friends on a Friday evening, but when you put them with their friends and then someone suggests doing something risky, that rational discussion is just not recalled.  So that’s why, with adolescents…we put barriers and boundaries (for example), when a kid can drive or drink.

Dick: We talk about there being a disassociation between knowing and doing…so to the extent that those influences are fairly strong in a child, then response inhibition…will sometimes take a back seat in the actual situation.  

So if your child is already a teenager, and as a parent you see response inhibition as a major issue with your child, is it too late?  Is there anything that they can do that’s either in Smart But Scattered or that you can suggest?