As an itinerant teacher turned educational consultant, I have had the pleasure to work with a wide variety of professionals. Some of the educators I worked with “got it” – they understood the uniqueness of kids and naturally made the necessary adaptations for their instruction to work for all of their students. Some of those I worked with really wanted to “get it,” but they struggled to understand some of the decisions their students made.
I remember once trying to explain Executive Function Disorder (EFD) to a coworker. As an adult who lives with the impact of EFD, I thought maybe I could explain to him the way my brain works, thus helping him understand his students better. It took me awhile, but then I figured out the perfect analogy – a jigsaw puzzle!
Think of a jigsaw puzzle created from a beautiful scene. All put together, it is amazing. Those of us who experience EFD can see the picture on the box, the finished product, the end result. We want that, and we start out very excited about the prospect of having such an awesome finished item.
Jigsaw puzzles for adults don’t come that way though; they come in a box with lots of tiny little pieces. Those of us with EFD sometimes struggle with whether we should start with sorting pieces by color or if we should start by sorting pieces by shape. Did we learn a different way before, one we can’t remember now. When we finally decide the way we are going to proceed, we do it, moving into a hyper-focused world that contains us and the puzzle pieces and nothing else. We have a mission, we know how to proceed, and we make it happen.
We get so excited when we have accomplished this first step, the sorting. Then we try to put pieces together, and we discover that the pieces don’t fit the way we expected them to. Is that because the pieces didn’t get sorted into the correct pile? Or because the way we chose to sort isn’t an effective method for that particular puzzle? Or maybe some of both? Maybe we accidentally mixed in pieces from a different puzzle.
Hmmm – so we have to start again. Maybe this time we choose a different way to sort the pieces, or maybe we dig through the current piles to make sure we didn’t mistakenly sort them. Sometimes this gives us what we need to move on to the next steps. Sometimes we get stuck again, and we have to reconsider how we are going to proceed.
The more pieces there are to the puzzle, the more we struggle to decide which is the “correct” way to proceed. We start, change our mind, make some changes, decide the other way was better, switch back, then remember something someone once told us and try that instead.
At this point it is easy to just say forget it, to put the puzzle away and pull out the coloring book or blocks instead. Some of us are too stubborn to give up. We look at this as a challenge we must overcome. We will finish this puzzle if it kills us! Or maybe we don’t have a choice, and this puzzle is for a grade and will make the difference on whether we move on to the next grade or stay behind.
Now we are so frustrated with figuring out which is the “correct” way, that we just start randomly picking up pieces and trying to fit them together. We might chose one piece to start with and try fitting it with every piece in the box – our “glass slipper” piece looking for the “foot” it fits with.
Eventually the puzzle gets finished, and it is as beautiful as the picture on the box. In reality, it is more beautiful, because of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the process. Hopefully those around us appreciate the puzzle and the challenge it represents. Hopefully we don’t get points taken off because we didn’t complete it the “right” way, by starting with the edge pieces and working our way in as our peers did.
WELCOME TO MY BRAIN!
I don’t know if my analogy helped this teacher, or if it even was a realistic depiction of what his students were experiencing. Maybe someday the pieces in his brain will fit together, and he will get it.