Monday, November 24, 2014

Executive Function: What Every Teacher Should Know

Executive Function is a growing buzz word in education. In my own school, I am hearing it more and more often. Our educational psychologist mentioned that we will all be receiving training soon. I knew that it sounded like something that could impact quite a few of my students. So, I did a little research of my own. I thought I would share my findings with you. I hope this will help you can get a jump start on helping this increasingly identified population, too. 

So, what is executive function? What difficulties do these students have? How can we help? Our school's brilliant educational psychologist explains it like this.
Imagine that your brain is an orchestra. All of the different processes you need for functioning in school are the various sections of the orchestra. Executive function serves as the conductor. It should manage the tempo or pace. It should cue and cut off certain processes with precision timing. However, if you have executive function deficits you may be expecting to conduct Pachelbel's Canon in D, but it comes out sounding like an orchestra when they are warming up to perform. Wouldn't that be terribly frustrating and discouraging?

How many students do you have that could be described in these terms? Of course, not all of them have executive function issues. Some people are lazy. Some people are messy by choice. These students do not wish to be so. They have a real disorder. Here are 3 quick examples for various ages.

Adult: I have a precious friend who has a learning disability. She also has issues with executive function. She is always a day late and a dollar short as they say. Crisis mode is her standard operating procedure. We once showed up to help her move to a new house. She and her husband were in an argument. She had not only not packed a single thing yet, but she had even forgotten to purchase the moving boxes. Nothing was packed, and it was moving day! Some other crisis or distraction had taken priority all week. 

Teenager: My own daughter has A.P.D.. You can read her story here. She also has some minor struggles with executive function. We have been able to overcome most of them, and I am so proud of her. Before she learned her coping strategies, when she was given a project in school, she would not know how to begin or divide up the task into smaller tasks. Her notebooks were a mess! She didn't know how to file anything because she could not decide where it belonged. 

Child: Whew, I might could write a book here since most of my experience is in 2nd grade RtI or Inclusion! We all have students who blurt out or make impulsive decisions! Students who when asked to write or problem solve, could stare at their blank paper endlessly. Do you have any students who cannot keep track of their pencil or folder for even five minutes? Do you have students who can spell a word right on the spelling test, but then misspell it in a sentence on the back of the test paper? How about students who have to solve the math fact every single time because they cannot recall the answer from memory? If any of these sound like a student you know, you might want to read on. :)

Wow, that is a wide variety of manifestations! Here are a few more detailed examples of things to watch out for:
A few students may struggle with ALL of these, but most of them will struggle with a few. ADD/ADHD or even misdiagnosed ADD/ADHD kids may have issues with inhibition/impulsiveness, emotional control, and self-monitoring their behavior. LD kids may struggle more with working memory, self-monitoring their thinking, and planning and organization. So, what do you do if you suspect EFD in a student or someone you know?

How can teachers help? Here is a list of recommended strategies that could positively impact all of your ADD, ADHD, LD, Autistic, or EFD students. Many of them are easy fixes, but the benefits are far reaching!
In the 21st century classroom, more and more focus is on independent or group work, problem solving, trouble shooting, and creativity. All of those skills are exceedingly difficult for students with executive function deficits. They can thrive with LOTS of guided practice and explicit directions for problem solving. You cannot assume that they understand how to implement strategies just because you taught the strategy. They have to be shown when it works, how it works, when it doesn't work, and have lots of opportunities to prove that they have moved the strategy from their flawed short term memory into their more reliable long term memory. In today's fast paced, rigorous curriculum, lots of time spent on one skill is a luxury we don't often have.
Here are some real world applications that I have tried and found to be successful at home and at school:
- Directions: Over-simplify them--the less confusion the better.
-Checklists: Make a personalized check list if necessary. (name on paper, everything answered, capital letters, punctuation, etc.)
-I have actually turned some students' desks around so that they could not access the storage under the desktop. They could not "play" inside the desk. I gave them the materials they needed for each individual task. In my small groups, I don't pass out pencils, scissors, or glue until they are needed. That way that don't lose them or get distracted by them.
-For my daughter, we create a pacing calendar when she gets a new project. We start with the day before it is due and work backward. We list every task that must be completed and schedule them on the calendar. (Purchase poster board, take notes on subject, introductory paragraph, rough draft, conclusion, draw illustrations, etc.) At first it was tedious, but now she can do these things automatically. 
-Brain break videos, Go Noodle, or even a hook/warm-up activity are great for helping students "switch gears" in their thinking from reading to math. 

If you would like to find out more about executive function, you can watch this video from Harvard University. It does an outstanding job of explaining the importance of strengthening executive function skills in young children.

I hope this has been helpful to you! I would love to find out if your school is also discussing executive function and if you have any tips to share!

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