When you claim to be able to help others with executive functions, the assumption is that you are very good at them yourself. And yes, when it comes to school, I am very good at analyzing texts, writing, and completing homework assignments. I might even have some suggestions about organizing notebooks and assignments, and time management. I assume the student I’m working with is motivated to do well, and may just need some coaching, such as putting the assignment in front of his nose and pointing at a pending deadline, or providing a model of what the finished product could look like.
But put me in a different environment and quite quickly I too would be considered “disabled.” Like my students in a school environment, I look clumsy, incompetent and lost in a kitchen environment. I create impossible messes; I go down unexpected pathways; I make mistakes that my competent cooking friends never make because it would never occur to them to put off boiling the water for the pasta until after the sauce was cooked. Things I “should” do when planning family meals just don’t “bubble up” in my consciousness.
Part of this KDHD (Kitchen Deficiency/Hopelessness Disorder) is due to lack of experience, and also from a traumatic experience, but it is compounded by a complete lack of innate executive chef skills. My wonderful husband, who was the cook in our family, died last year after a terrible illness. Previously, he had prepared delicious meals every day — every day — and on special occasions (Sunday mornings; Thanksgiving; birthdays; dinner parties) he prepared extraordinary meals. He is my role model. Compared to him, I am … a failure, a loser, hopeless. I wonder if my students compare themselves to their high-achieving parents and siblings and feel perpetually flawed. Hopeless at ever developing those hidden skills of planning, prioritizing, sequencing, and time management on top of just remembering stuff you need to do.
So, the sadness at his loss aside, I recognize that in this non-preferred environment, I struggle. My messy counters are like my students’ messy handwriting. My walking into the kitchen at 5:00 pm, suddenly realizing that I haven’t planned ahead for dinner and now I don’t even have the ingredients I need, is just like my students realizing they have a big assignment due the next day, and they haven’t started it yet. Or, they share my anger at having to produce something again. “Another 5-paragraph research paper? Didn’t I just do one last week?” It is such a tremendous amount of effort to make one meal; why do I have to do so much for so little reward? Is this ever going to become easy for me?
That terrible sinking feeling I have been experiencing, caused by my KDHD, must be just how terrible our students feel when confronted with school failure. If they could develop self-awareness to see that their ADHD is interfering with their success, and not simply go to beating themselves up for being “stupid” or “lame,” they could be much more productive. Looking at my failure in the kitchen through this lens generates self-compassion and not just exhaustion.
The more I think through this analogy, I realize that there are many professions where having ADHD would be a benefit: emergency room doctor, salesperson, and yes, chef! Someone who can jump from project to project, keeping them all simmering simultaneously, would excel if he or she had short bursts of attention that could re-ignite over and over again. They might need help with ordering supplies, but eventually much of the planning could be routinized and controlled. Being creative in a fast-paced environment would be cherished.
Not to say having ADHD is easy, or fun. But my KDHD is teaching me that most people are on some spectrum in some if not all areas of their lives. I wish there was a medical treatment to help me be better at planning meals, thinking through the cooking process, being aware and in the moment, and even enjoying the process of preparing food, lovingly and artistically. However, I may look into hiring a cooking coach or taking classes on “meal management.”
And that’s where I want my students to get to, too — they can recognize where they struggle, and meet the minimum requirements for getting the assignment done. Me making a simple dinner of pasta with bottled pasta sauce is like them studying Spanish verbs for 15 minutes every night; we just have to do it, and we have to do it every night. It doesn’t have to be great; it just has to be done. A few things have to be spectacular; we need to spend a lot more time on those, and start planning a lot sooner. Yes, we also need to ask for help.
So, I’m working on managing my KDHD for Thanksgiving: I’ve enlisted the help of my sister; we’ve picked out the recipes; I ordered the turkey. My other executive skills can take over from here: I can write out a list based on the recipes, and I can time purchasing them for the Sunday before Thanksgiving. My students can use their strengths to cover for their weaknesses, as long as they are aware of what those are.
And parents, oh you wonderful, competent parents, maybe you can see how hard something “simple” can be for your kids, and that they still really need your help. Your job may be to advise, to remind, or to bring in an outside person to help. By understanding that your child is willing but not able (yet) to balance all the academic demands placed upon him or her, your perspective can become compassionate, and your impatience can melt into humor if you see how my cheese log turned out.