Writing, Executive Function, and Deep Breathing

I’ve written about my son, the reluctant writer, in a few other posts:  Writing as CalculusOpen Mic FrightCelebrate Illustrators! 

And now that he’s in 4th grade, the pressure is on to produce even more. So when he came home with an assignment to write a newspaper article, using the “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How” structure, he was fit to be tied.


This is an idiom from my Midwestern childhood. I have not tied my son to a chair to get him to do his homework, although the thought has crossed my mind.

Enter the learning specialist who suggests my son has Executive Function challenges. His executive,


the one responsible for:

  • planning/organizing (where are my ducks and what order do I put them in?),
  • initiating (I don’t know where to start!),
  • inhibition (why not throw that rock just for fun?),
  • flexibility (but that wasn’t the plan!),
  • emotional control (why shouldn’t I fill your shampoo bottle with water if I’m angry?),
  • working memory (what do I need to do again?),
  • organization of materials (where did I put that?), and
  • self-monitoring (how am I doing on this project?) is


—in many of these areas. 

Now, my son is a smart kid. He can read faster than I, whiz through math problems, and build working gadgets that could live in Wallace and Gromit’s world. But if you ask him to write about what he’s read, write a story, or explain step by step how he got the right math answer, his executive hangs it up: 


If you recognize any of these weaknesses in yourself or your kids, I recommend two books: Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning and Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators. Even my executive is showing up for work more often now that I’ve read them.

But back to my son and his angst. First, he “forgot” the assignment was due until my executive had a 5-year strategic planning meeting with his executive. Second, once he was seated at the kitchen table, he moaned that this was toooooo hardddddddd, and that he had no idea how to start. 

So, I told him to write down the five W’s and the one H and then put an idea next to each one. He did this over the course of a few minutes without too much daydreaming and gnawing of pencils.


Then he started groaning about where to start. So I practiced my deep breathing exercises at the stove before saying, “I’ve read lots of news articles and they usually go something like this: On [a specific date], [so and so] did [something] to [something], causing this [other thing] to happen.

Suddenly, his face lit up. He picked up his pencil and didn’t stop writing until a little over a half an hour later. Here is his story:

On the day before school break, December twenty-first, Skizzor High School was flooded by a group of juvenile delinquents. Fifteen out of sixteen have been caught. One has evaded capture and has escaped school over the fence. No one knows his whereabouts but we the S.F.P.D. are offering a five hundred dollar reward. According to his accomplices a man whose identity is not known paid them to ruin and flood the high school by cutting the sprinkler system pipes. “Such behavior is not tolerated” says Principal and Founder Natasha Skizzor. “And they will be expelled immediately.”


Phoenix, yes?

Woohooo! When I asked him where he got the name “Skizzor,” he pointed at the scissors lying on the table and said that he changed the spelling to be funny. Can I just say “woohooo!!!” again?

Now, I have to tell you that the books say kids with executive function challenges are not consistent, so tomorrow, he may take hours to write something that is nowhere near as wonderful as this. But for today, my executive is giving my son’s executive a bonus, lots of warm fuzzies,


no strings attached. But I’m thinking that there may be some Lego building or whoopee cushion action involved.

P.S. Today, we got all the way home from school only to “discover” that the writing assignment due on Friday (that we’ve been “trying” to get home since Monday) was left at school. We turned around and went back for it. The only thing consistent about my son is his inconsistency. I am murmuring my new mantra–at least he’s consistently inconsistent.

29 thoughts on “Writing, Executive Function, and Deep Breathing

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Well, he certainly produced the goods with that one. Well done!

    It’s difficult to see our children struggle in certain areas–both my boys had their weaknesses, but I always tell them the brain is a muscle, and all that effort and thinking just make it stronger. Luckily, they no longer need help with their homework. I don’t think I have the energy (nor the retention anymore) to handle calculus. 🙂

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      So those are the stars I see shining in the East! I will pass on your praise to the young man. Thank you!

      I had to chortle a bit (thinking of you) when the book mentioned that OCD can often be linked to weak impulse control within the Executive Brain. I recall some rumblings of you saying that you are a bit “OCD.” And then I recall your story about your wife locking you out of the house. So naturally, I’m thinking your executive lunch-taking got you in a wee bit of trouble? Am I writing fiction here? 😮

  2. Letizia says:

    I love your son’s story, skizzors – great! Your prompting was so wonderful, just enough to get him going, but not stifle his creativity and fun – ideal!

  3. Margarita says:

    Great story! Thanks for the book recommendations. My daughter’s 26, just back in college, and could probably benefit from the point of view of executive skills! xoM

  4. 4amWriter says:

    I have never heard of executive function challenges, so I have just learned something new! I have to wonder about my 8-year-old son, but I’m not sure he fully fits the profile. I’ll definitely look into it more.

    I like how you prompted him. Sometimes we just have to hit the timing right and they soar. Other times, no matter how patient and clear we are, it doesn’t matter. They simply won’t turn that corner.

    Skizzor is too awesome.

  5. Jennifer Bullis says:

    Reading this post helps me with *my* executive-function functions! Thanks for writing this, and I’m looking forward to getting caught up on reading your blog! (Ever since WordPress moved everything from email notifications to the Reader, I’ve been falling behind.)

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I know what you mean, both for Exec Func and the reader. I’ve found that I have to go in an manually change notifications, and then it seems to override them, anyway. But it could be my “user error.” 😀 Hope you have a great TG with friends and family.

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