Executive Function and the Art of Diesel-Powered Car Repair (Pt 4)

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Welcome back. Thanks for making it to the finish line. At the end of Part 3 we looked at the question Are professors, and teachers, and police, and first responders, and even bus drivers taking on the responsibility of therapeutic scaffolding without knowing or being fully prepared for it? I said that I did not have an answer to that question. However, I did say that in this last part of the series we would look at some possible solutions.

I wrote a summary of a 2020 book on spatial cognition by researcher Toru Ishikawa entitled Human Spatial Cognition and Experience: Mind in the World, World in the Mind. It would take us too far afield but suffice it to say that spatial cognition is a part of Executive Function. I summarized Ishikawa’s book because in my opinion geologists need spatial cognition in spades. As a matter of fact, Ishikawa has a small section toward the end of his book on spatial cognition and geology.

At the end of my summary of Ishikawa’s book I suggested that colleges and universities should have spatial cognition generalists on hand given that so many of the STEM sciences (like, all of them) require spatial cognition. This idea is not unlike having generalists at hospitals who are called hospitalists. I can now see that this idea was too limited in scope. Realistically colleges and universities need EF generalists given that all of education depends on it, especially geology. (And EF generalists could be located at departments of psychology, cognitive science, or even neurobiology.) Should professors (outside psychology) become EF generalists, psychogeologists? Heck no, not unless they wish to. But I think they should demand that administrators find EF generalists and put them on the payroll. Hospitalists are a relatively new breed of medical doctor, but they are saving hospitals tons of money. Sadly, it appears that many education administrators lean toward “system deletes.”

My source here is not important. However it is my understanding that a well-known major state university is well underway toward putting all of their degree programs online (and my source opposed these efforts vociferously). Not surprisingly, the cost for these online programs has not been reduced one bit even though they cost “pennies on the dollar” less than bricks and mortar learning. You now can get a masters degree in social work or counseling entirely online with very few face-to-face requirements. My source commented to me, “What will happen the first time a newly-minted social worker or counselor has a face-to-face with a client and that client has body odor, or a speech impediment, or is overly flirtatious?” Good question. Is the idea of an EF generalist too much? How about EAPs on campus?

When I was a counselor in training I had an instructor who worked for a large corporation that had an EAP department. EAP stands for employee assistance program. Here’s how Wikipedia describes EAPs: “An employee assistance program generally offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services for employees. EAP counselors may also work in a consultative role with managers and supervisors to address employee and organizational challenges and needs.” Bingo.

I have no idea if colleges and universities have EAPs but they should. I think the key change that needs to happen is we as a society have to be transparent with respect to what is happening to care. Again, we are externalizing care and mental health onto the environment. This trend started back in the 1990s when psychiatric beds began disappearing almost overnight. Now people who should have some level of residential treatment are left to fend for themselves out on the streets.

Say it. Put it out there. We are “streeting” care. And now it’s in geology classrooms. Pulling from Part 3, who exactly will pay for all of this brain damage like the brain damage that could result from neurotoxins released into the air?

Geology professors, you are being asked to be a therapist, a psychogeologist. Given this reality, it makes sense to add EAPs to college and university campuses. With EAPs on campus, now as geology professors go about creating a therapeutic environment in part in response to the accommodation letters they receive, if they run into problems, say, during a field trip or planning field camp, professors can go to their EAP counselor and talk over their concerns. Heck, maybe an EAP counselor could go into the field to help out. As the Wikipedia description suggests, the EAP counselor could then consult with supervisors and administrators or maybe personnel at the Office of Disability Services.

It troubles me to think that geologists (and a host of other scientists) are being asked (and in a somewhat covert way) to create therapeutic environments without help or guidance from counselors, social workers, or other mental health professionals. Creating EAPs on campuses would be akin to mandating SCR systems, to make those groups externalizing care become responsible for the cost of externalizing that care. As a side note, that Wikipedia entry on EAPs makes it clear that the federal government runs EAPs for its employees. The federal government certainly sees the value in EAPs; why not put them on campuses along with the Office of Disability Services?

So, a hypothetical professor who has had an opportunity to speak with an EAP counselor might send a letter back to the Office of Disability Services saying something like:

Evolution has blessed humans with the ability to develop Executive Functioning. You mess with the EF system and you mess with not only the futures of our kids but Evolution in general. EF and neurobiology are not in my wheelhouse but I know enough (having spoken with my EAP counselor) to know that for kids to be successful in any school environment, they need well-developed EF appropriate to their level of development and learning. What you are asking me to do is to potentially mess with the EF system. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. It almost sounds like you wish for me to delete the EF system, which will also delete emotion regulation. This is like deleting the SCR system on a diesel-powered car and allowing nitrogen oxides to enter our air in the form of student dysregulation and decompensation. The EPA tells us to not delete SCR systems and Evolution tells us to not delete EF systems.

I get that society is feeding our kids dirty diesel fuel if you will (neurotoxins chief among them). I’m not sure there’s much that educators can do about that. Education researchers are working hard to come up with ways to keep EF systems clean and working well, but it’s a tough and time-consuming job. Such things as illicit drug use, unprescribed behavioral drug use, accommodation letters, and walking on eggshells in an attempt to not “trigger” emotional responses in kids only serve to gunk up the EF works. Frankly I’m surprised that so many wish to mess with or otherwise delete the EF system as this represents attempts to not only mess with the future of our kids but the very future of our society. We will carry on the best we know how but, please, a little help.

Here’s another solution: let’s all agree that we live in a “delete system” world (as talked about in Part3). One could argue that all this deleting is a part of an evolutionary process. Fair enough. But let’s openly look at the possible pros (such as newer extensions of EF) and cons (such as accepting that we will have a certain number of school shootings each year, a certain level of fentanyl addiction, or a certain number of racially-motivated assaults). Let’s put the EF debate out there in the open (which is in part why I’m writing this blog series). I would suggest that we start by accepting that we are in the middle of an EF crisis given that so many forces in society today are acting to impede EF development.

So all this to say that there is a lot of bad fuel out there now making SCR systems that would be EF mess up. Sure, educators should know in general why so many check engine lights are coming on, but should they know the inner workings of an SCR system that is EF? Frankly, no. And should educators assume that kids will come to them with well-functioning EF systems. Yes, they should. Their classrooms should not be a smoggy mess. I’m either a psychogeologist here or just plain “psycho.” I’ll let you decide. Allow me to give Dr. Barkley the last word as this really is his story:

The extended phenotype of EF is dynamic, not static. New levels can arise and disintegrate as a function of the social scaffolding needed to attain and retain it and the fulfillment of individual’s rational interests. Certainly damage to the PFC may undermine an individual’s ability to participate at [the] societal level of the extended phenotype. But just as often damage to the cultural-social scaffolding can result in the inability of entire groups of individuals to participate at this level.

Postscript: There have been so many teen-involved and mass shootings lately that it is getting hard to keep them all straight. The shooting death of Dr. Zijie Yan, an associate professor in applied physical sciences at the University of North Carolina, must have the entire higher education community startled and understandably concerned. As a society we have reached the point when the words “our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who have lost loved ones” no longer have any palliative effect. Families want answers. Sure, our leaders can certainly issue forth with the above expression of condolence, but it better be quickly followed up with, “and we will make every effort to figure out what is going on in our society and fix it.” Our leaders need to develop a bit of EF and begin engaging in critical thinking. Leaders, start by picking up a book. Read Barkley’s book. Read Schore’s book. Do a Google Scholar search. The information is out there. And possible solutions are out there as well. Thoughts and prayers are not going to cut it. Maybe the first step is to create the Brain Development Protection Agency. And in reality the EPA is already doing some of this work by trying to reduce the amount of neurotoxins in the air. Let’s ramp up these efforts. There is only so far EF can slide before as Jane Jacobs puts it in her 2004 book title, Dark Age Ahead.