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An Interview with Dr. Christopher Kaufman: Executive Functioning in the Classroom

Aug 30, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Dr. Kaufman, first of all could you tell us about your education and experiences?

I was born in NYC, raised on Long Island, and majored in psychology at the State University of New York at Purchase (BA in 1983). I actually began my college career as a theater major, and, while the acting thing didn’t pan out (saw myself in a few student films and realized I was more destined for starvation than stardom) all the theater training has actually served quite well for the workshop stuff I’ve done over my career (see below).

Anyway, back to psychology. I got my Master’s Degree in Clinical School Psychology from The City College of New York in 1987 and my doctorate (Ph.D.) in School Psychology from the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York in 1993. I spent the first several years of my career as a school psychologist for the New York City public schools and also taught part-time for Queens College, all while finishing up the doctorate (and sleeping on very rare occasion).

I got married as well in the midst of all that to a woman with zero interest in hardcore urban living, and so, we relocated to Casper, Wyoming after I finished my doctorate. There I served as senior psychologist for the Natrona County Public Schools. We came back East a few years later when I was recruited by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. After a few years there (spent mostly in pitched battle with the dark lords of managed care), I elected to return to school psychology and served as Lead Psychologist for the Portland (Maine) School Department for the next 12 years.

While with Portland, I launched a part-time private practice (Kaufman Psychological Services) through which I provided open-to-the-public and fee for service workshops around New England on a host of brain-based learning topics. I wrote the book, Executive Function in the Classroom, during a sabbatical year in 2008, and left the school department in January of this year to devote myself full-time to KPS. My professional life these days is devoted in equal measures to both workshop/webinar and clinical practice.

2) Now, what exactly is executive functioning?

Executive function refers to those aspects of cognition and personal functioning that are associated with self-direction and self-regulation. Essentially, whenever we are engaged in any purposeful act or even planning to act, we are engaged in executive function. In my book I draw a distinction between the more academic/cognitive executive skills (more metacognitive executive functions such as goal-setting, planning, organization, working memory, task initiation, self-monitoring, etc.) and those skills that are more associated with behavioral self-control (e.g., impulse control and emotional regulation).

I also stress in both my book and my EF workshops that while it is common for many in the general population and even in the educational community to think of executive skills as only connected with such daily activities as backpack, locker, school desk, and bedroom organization (and getting essential materials to and from school), a growing body of research has demonstrated the essential impact executive skills have on literacy and math skill acquisition and social functioning. The bottom line is that there are very few things that children do in school and that adults do across home and vocational contexts that are divorced from executive functions.

3) How does it develop?

Dr. Russell Barkley, in his wonderful book, ADHD and the Nature of Self-Control (1997, Guilford), laid out a theory of executive skill development that has significantly influenced many of us who specialize in the area. The second chapter of my book devoted to EF development, and is largely constructed around Barkley’s theory and the research supporting it. In a nutshell, children (and this will come as no surprise to any parent) enter the world with virtually no executive/self-regulatory capacity, and over the course of the first five years of life make incredible gains in this cognitive domain (associated primarily with the development of the pre-frontal cortical regions and their connections to an array of other cortical and emotional processing centers – more on this below). Where my thinking diverges some from Barkley’s is with regard to the role environmental influences play in shaping developing executive capacity. While Barkley gives generally short-shrift to environmental factors (placing considerable emphasis on genetic determination), I stress the impact that environment (particularly negative/traumatic experiences) can have on the growth and development of kids’ metacognitive and self-regulatory skill set.

4) Is there a spot in the brain that seems to control this?

The pre-frontal cortex (the front of the frontal lobe)is largely credited with being the brain’s executive and self-regulation center, although to say that executive skill is only mediated by this region would be an oversimplification (particularly with regard to children’s executive skill). As I stress in my book’s third chapter (and as Elkhonon Goldberg said before me in his own wonderful book, The Executive Brain; 2001, Oxford University Press), the frontal lobe is distinct from the other three cortical lobes in that is wired not so much for the input of sensory information but instead for cognitive output and control. The rearmost (‘posterior’) regions of the frontal lobe are primarily bound-up in motor self-control, while the front (‘anterior’) regions are associated with cognitive control. It is these area that primarily mediate executive skills and other aspects of higher order cognition, but it does so (and this is the key point) through active communication/interaction with a host of other brain structures and systems.

This is why significant injury to any portion of the brain can negatively impact executive skills, since the prefrontal cortex has to work that much harder to compensate for a lack of processing capacity elsewhere. Dyslexic children, for example, often exhibit a range of attention and other executive difficulties, and this is likely because their still developing prefrontal regions are taxed significantly in school settings by the cognitive strain that literacy disabilities place on the larger cognitive system.

5) It seems that a great many kids have no planning, long range thought, and specific skills related to this construct. Is this a failure of parents, teachers or both?

I’ll give a nod back to Barkley here by saying that genetics certainly play a significant role in children’s acquisition and expression of executive capacity and other higher order cognitive skills such as memory functioning. And so, to that extent, parents can be ‘blamed’ for their children’s executive difficulties. As I noted earlier, however, environmental shaping can also have a major impact on kids’ executive skills. Children raised in homes in which generally strong executive and self-regulation skills are modeled are far more likely to develop and exhibit these skills than children raised in more chaotic family environments. Teachers (and I really stress this in my book and my EF workshops) also play a critical role in shaping their students’ executive capacity from year to year. That is, teachers who EXPLICITY MODEL AND TEACH the metacognitive and self-regulation skills children need to function at a given grade level (and in particular academic and social contexts) and then provide frequent opportunities to practice the skills with guidance can do so much to build kids’ executive capacity. The well-worn phrase, “A rising tide raises all boats” very much applies here.

6) Now, tell us about your book- and who should buy it and why?

I wrote my book across the 2007/2008 school year because, as a practicing school and clinical psychologist, I was frustrated by the absence of an approachable, engaging resource for teachers and parents about this essential cognitive domain and its relationship to academic and social functioning. What was out there at the time focused largely around ADHD and/or defined executive skill in an overly narrow way (backpack, locker, bedroom organization and the like). While these topics are certainly important and are key aspects of EF, executive skill (as I noted earlier) impacts literally everything children do in school and so much of what they do at home as well. What I tried to do in my book, then, was to help teachers and parents see the connections between developing executive capacity and such essential school/life functions as reading, writing, and math (and provide an array of evidence-based and clinically logical strategies to improve the academic and social functioning of kids with EF weakness).

My book is also distinct from its competitors in that is stresses the idea that executive function is an issue for everyone (we all struggle, more or less, and at least from time to time, across a range of executive domains), and thus curriculum and academic and social programs for students across the grade span should be designed from the ground up with executive skill development in mind. Feedback from teachers, school-based clinicians, and parents who’ve read the book has also stressed its approachability and heavy emphasis on concrete/doable strategies. For more information on Executive Function in the Classroom, please visit www.brookespublishing.com.

7) Attention and impulse control – how are these related to executive functioning?

They are both essential executive skills. I subscribe to Russ Barkley’s view of impulse control being the primordial (first among all) executive skills. Basically, as Barkley notes (and I push this in my book/workshops as well), no other executive skill can be executed until we first stop what we are already doing. To stop, we must inhibit, and inhibition requires impulse control. So many children struggle in school across the grade span because they are fundamentally challenged with regard to behavioral inhibition; that is, they struggle to a far greater extent than their peers with doing the ‘stopping’ part of what parents and teachers are always trying to get kids to do – to stop and think. Attention’s role in executive functioning is a more complex topic, and is addressed in some detail in my book’s first chapter.

Briefly, I’ll note here that while not all aspects of our attention are under our conscious control (witness how easily most of us can be distracted or at least have our attention diverted by the novel/unexpected), there are elements of our attention over which we do maintain conscious control. These elements of attention are often referred to in the psychological and cognitive literatures as ‘executive attention’ or ‘goal-directed attention.’ It is these aspects of executive skill that should be included in the panoply of metacognitive executive skills and has a particularly strong relationship to working memory and self-monitoring skill. 

8) Do kids with ADD and hyperactivity have deficits in executive functioning?

Most definitely. Indeed, as others (particularly Russ Barkley and Thomas Brown) have been saying for many years, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is at its heart a disorder of executive functioning. I stress in the book and workshops that the core types of ADHD (Inattentive Type, Hyperactive-Impulsive Type, and Combined Type) are simply different profiles of executive skill deficiency (‘executive dysfunction’) relative to developmental norms.

9) In your mind, is ADD just a bunch of behaviors or is there some germ or bacteria causing ADD like behaviors and difficulties?

ADHD is now pretty well understood on a brain and cognitive processing level. Brain scan research and related studies have demonstrated that ADHD symptoms are associated with developmental processing weakness in the prefrontal cortex and in its connections to other essential cortical and emotional processing regions.

The psychostimulant medications (i.e., Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall) achieve their therapeutic effect by temporarily bumping up the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions, and in so doing enable more effective functioning in these regions (enabling better focus and self-regulation).

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Nothing, as far as I can see. Your questions were very interesting, relevant, and enjoyable to address. Thanks so much for asking them and for your interest in my book!

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