This blog is recorded.  Just click on the following link.Dino Di Donato

Dino Di Donato, MFT, a specialist in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was a speaker at Parents Education Network in mid-May.  His topic:  Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Executive Functioning Challenges.  

Mindfulness is a skill that allows one to be less reactionary. Its primary force is teaching self regulation. Its derivation is Buddhist psychology and comes from Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, who founded Buddhism almost 2,500 years ago. In current day, mindfulness is often taught independent of any religious or cultural connotation. Mindfulness (meditation) is a way of paying attention, “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68). This skill gives the person with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) tools for moment to moment self regulation of emotional, cognitive and behavior responses, essential for effective Executive Functioning.

When I think of Executive Functions my thoughts run to the responsibilities of the top echelon of a corporation. I have discovered that’s too limiting a perspective.  According to Wikipedia the term is employed by psychologists and neuroscientists to describe a loosely defined collection of brain processes that are responsible for planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions, along with selecting relevant sensory information.

Mr. Di Donato further defines it as a neuropsychological term to describe higher level cognitive abilities enabling an individual to successfully engage in independent goal-directed behavior. Mr. Di Donato says there are longitudinal studies of those who meditate which support the theory that the function of neurological structures of the brain can change over time with cognitive practices relating to meditation.

A child or adult with ADHD and other diagnoses often reacts with inappropriate actions.  There are many reasons for this behavior.  Any person with or without ADHD can be impaired when he or she picks up the language of what they hear around them. The reason:  language serves to shape the development of an individual’s perception of their personal reality. If a parent uses the language of depression the child picks it up constructing their view of the world based on their parent’s reality. The problem is the child is not able to separate the message and the content. When this happens the limbic system, associated with the fight or flight response in the brain, releases adrenalin into the body which cannot then reasonably respond to the moment/event at hand. The child or adult with ADHA can go off on an emotional tangent without the benefit of the cognitive process supported by yet another part of the brain, the cortex.  

One developmental aspect of executive functioning Mr. Di Donato discussed was the need for verbal problem solving and learning for most individuals with ADHD.  The internal monologue that beings to develop in early childhood and grows into adulthood through executive functioning is generally delayed or limited for people with challenges to executive functions.  

Kids and adults with ADHD will see the broad pictures, and even see the relationships between things that other cannot see, but can’t find a way to describe it.  If they are male, their excitement may come across as arrogant. If they are female they might seems overly emotional. This difficulty in communication due to emotional overload can cause problems in school, the workplace as well as at home with the family. This is where mindfulness comes in. 

Mr. Di Donato had many suggestions for application of mindfulness theory for parents in the audience. One focused on how to help a kid with ADHD who constantly needs explanations to statement. e.g. A parent may say:  we have to leave.  The answer is: why? This kid wants to know how you came to this conclusion.  Even though you may not think you have the time to give the answer, if you break down the sequences and then synthesize the information, putting it back together again for the ADHD child chances are you will get cooperation. And, if you offer your child the opportunity to learn the skills of mindfulness this practice can shift what is going on in the brain and how the brain functions.

 Some scientific studies proving the value of mindfulness can be found at the following institutions:

Centers in the San Francisco Bay Area who teach Mindfulness for adults include:

Osher Center for Integrative Medicine:


California Pacific Medical Center’s Health and Wellness Center:


Spirit Rock:  www.spiritrock.org

First Universalist Church in San Francisco: Vipassana meditation group


And, for students in the San Francisco Bay Area check out:

Day Park School in Oakland and/or 

http://www.mindfulschools.org      Contact Laurie Grossman: 510 535 6746 Laurie@mindfulschools.org.

Dino Di Donato can be reached at dinomft@pacbell.net or 415 431 3466. 


Dino Di Donato’s discussion on mindfulness was the last PEN lecture for the 2010/2011 season. I find it encouraging that the PEN Lecture programmers pick up on concepts that are shared by speakers throughout the school year.  It is not uncommon that a new concept introduced by a speaker becomes a topic for another lecture.  Such was the case with this final lecture.  The concept was introduced by Todd Rose during his PEN lecture to school teachers. Soon after Dino Di Donato was invited to share mindfulness details with the PEN audience. These PEN programmers keep current!

Dr. Todd Rose advice to school teachers

Recently Parents Education Network (PEN) in San Francisco sponsored a lecture for school teachers given by Dr. Todd Rose. Dr Rose is on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he teaches a course on Educational Neuroscience. He is also co-chair of the summer institute for Mind, Brain, and Education sponsored by Harvard.  Add to these credentials is his work as a research scientist with CAST, a nonprofit research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through a program called Universal Design for Learning.

According to the Society for Neuroscience, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system which advances the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior. The focus of his talk was neuroscience and its relationship to learning.  He emphatically stated new learning science information is emerging.  “We are confronting what do students need for future learning, especially those with learning differences.” 

After showing us a view of the brain networks and their broad distribution encased in our head, he cautioned that it’s not just about knowing the networks, it’s the context that’s important.  It seems that the networks are variable in all persons and surprisingly most are not relevant to learning. The context refers to what is happening in the environment in which one is learning. 

Next he added the component of working memory which is the ability of the brain to actively hold information in the mind. Without this retention complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning become next to impossible.  Again it is important to remember that working memory is very variable.  In a classroom of thirteen year olds, the variability might include a student with the working memory of an eight year old  as well as a student who has a working memory like a dolphin.   It’s no wonder that teachers are challenged as they teach! 

When the student is under stress or threat the emotional component compounds the difficulty for one’s working memory.  On the other hand, the same student when feeling confident can do many tasks. The challenge for the teacher is to leave space in the teaching process for this variability.   

If a student can’t hold a goal in mind, it means that the working memory is no longer in operation.  Kids who are not able to automate the core basic skills are sending a signal that he or she is probably a learning challenged child.  

Next Dr Rose addressed the topic of Executive Functions: His definition includes:  the ability to plan, organize, be goal directed and a self motivator.  He feels planning is a skill.  It involves working memory.  A child/student who struggles with this task needs to be given the tools to learn it.  Goals really matter.  Focus on one goal only. A secondary goal often means the child will get lost.  Teachers need to be careful not to ask more than what the child can handle to be successful. 

He re-iterated that working memory really matters now.  Adolescents are increasingly not able to organize their time because there is so much information.  They have to be taught how to use it. e.g:  Twitter and Facebook.  

These two following important skills are what teachers must take the time to teach. 

1.         Search:  It’s not simply a matter of finding the information, just as important is

discovering what to do with the information.  Kids with poor working memory get lost with the second step. 

2.         Organization:  We are past the point where kids can do stuff in their own heads.  We have to get better at cognition/working memory. Students need to learn how to better leverage  their environment and the numerous technologies. 

Other drawbacks to a good working memory.

Writing notes is a huge task for working memory.  Any kind of motion is distractible and a hindrance to working memory.

Tools that help a good working memory.

Meditation does help some.  Mindfulness exercises are important because the individual has to settle down and be quiet.  Exercise in the classroom can make a child comfortable and has a major effect on increasing the ability to succeed.  

Finally, the educational process has to improve so that new information reaches teachers and it includes details on how to use the information.  

Dr. Todd Rose can be reached at http://isites.harvard.edu/todd_rose or todd_rose@gse.harvard.edu