So, let me guess the kinds of weaknesses your struggling learners have. Study skills? Organization? Goal setting? Planning strategies? Metacognition? Sometimes these deficits describe a child with ADHD. Sometimes, but not always. What if I told you there’s an underlying mental process that can explain all of these issues? It is a concept called “executive function.”
Educators have recently borrowed a term from the neuropsychologists to describe these self-regulation skills. The term, executive function, has been catching on as a way to conceptualize all these planning and monitoring processes. These functions mirror the way an executive in a business coordinates the “big picture” to devise and execute plans. In the case of executive function, the executive is the brain’s “prefrontal cortex,” a person’s “command and control” center.
You may be thinking that there is nothing new or groundbreaking about realizing the importance of these executive functions. The research and practice of teaching students self-monitoring strategies and organizational skills goes back many decades (see Resources below). There is a reason these behaviors have been studied for a long time. They are important. Executive functions seem to lie at the crossroads of academics and behavior, profoundly influencing both.
Let’s consider our student, Lillian, who has a lot of trouble keeping organized. Her desk is a mess, but so is her approach to multistep math problems. She has trouble budgeting her time and effort on longer term projects. Prioritizing things is difficult for her. She just can’t seem to evaluate her own work and revise her papers accordingly. Does Lillian sound like a student with ADHD? How about a learning disability? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is for certain: Lillian has difficulties with the executive functions.
So now we have an idea what executive function is. For a term to be useful, though, it has to be more than just a label. The term must be tied to instructional strategies that are shown to be effective. Let’s take a look at what these strategies might be for executive function deficits.
First off, a program of direct instruction seems obvious as a key to improving the student’s ability to learn the skills that make up executive function. Most children develop these skills in the normal course of learning and doing, but for children like Lillian, if she could pick it up on their own, she wouldn’t be where she is right now. Here are some specific ideas for teaching several of the most important (academically and behaviorally) executive functions.
For a student to effectively set goals, he or she must understand and have a clear sense of what the final product is to be. Open-ended projects hit students with executive function deficits hard. Make sure to give the student rubrics ahead of time. Teach the student to calendars to track progress on longer projects, and don’t forget to be clear about the learning goals up front. Check out “self-regulated strategy development” (see References “The IRIS Center”) for an intervention that provides explicit instruction in goal-setting and self-evaluation.
Strategies to encourage planning can be as simple as providing scaffolding for initiating writing assignments. For example, rather than having the student simply “brainstorm,” why not provide a graphic organizer for them to record their ideas and connections? And better yet, instead of a blank organizer, add the topics and subtopics that the student is required to address in the paper. Use these kinds of graphic organizers as part of your routine. Make sure to help the student learn to break down assignments into manageable steps.
Once again, graphic organizers can be useful here. Teach concept mapping and webbing for note taking. Have checklists for things like organizing materials, homework, and desks. Make sure your class schedule has a regular, structured time for organizing materials to take home.
How efficiently the student spends his or her time, effort, and attention goes to how well the student can prioritize. It shows up in reading. For example, finding the main idea or theme of a passage. The student may have difficulty using all six traits of effective writing. For math, it can show up in just about any task that asks the student to determine what a problem is really asking and drawing a model of it. For prioritizing, you can “think aloud” with your students, so they will have a good example of what essential features to look for when answering those kinds of questions in reading, writing, and math. Help students learn how to budget their time using priority lists and calendars.
Shifting is simply being able to hold and manipulate information in your working memory. Accurate and efficient reading requires students to shift easily among several different reading approaches such as decoding, use of sight word vocabulary, and reliance on context clues. Ways to build this skill include having students create alternate endings to stories and having students describe as many different ways they can use a particular object (i.e., a pencil or a cardboard box). In math word problems, students have to shift fluidly between numbers and words. Use multiple representations of mathematical concepts and move students through concrete, pictorial, and abstract representations of a problem.
This is where we force the student to consider his or her own progress and foster metacognition. Students can evaluate their work on a writing assignment using rubrics. In math, the student should ask himself, “does the answer make sense?” Students can also record what strategy they use to solve a reading comprehension question or a math problem. They can make notes on post-it notes or in the margins of books about things they find surprising, confusing, or just interesting. An important and often overlooked part of self-monitoring is the charting or graphing of student progress and performance. Student involvement with this data is a highly researched program feature with a lot of positive results behind it.
Executive function is one of the most rapidly growing fields in education. This article has been only an overview. To find out more, check out the following resources for more complete and in-depth reading on this interesting model of learning.
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom. New York: The Guilford Press.
Regan, K., & Mastropieri, M. A. (2009, Spring). Self-Regulated Strategy Development for Writing. Retrieved 4 13, 2011, from TeachingLD: http://www.teachingld.org/pdf/alert17writingSSRD.pdf
Tarver, S. (1999, Spring). A Focus On Direct Instruction. Retrieved 4 13, 2011, from TeachingLD: http://www.teachingld.org/pdf/Alert2.pdf
The IRIS Center. (n.d.). Star Legacy Modules. Retrieved 1 22, 2012, from IRIS Center: http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/srs/chalcycle.htm
You may also be interested in finding out more about “self-management strategies.”
Carr, S., & Punzo, R., (1993). The effects of self-monitoring of academic accuracy and productivity n the performance of students with behavioral disorder. Behavioral Disorders, 18(4), 241-250.
Fantuzzo, J.W., Polite, K., Cook, D. M., & Quinn, G. (1988). An evaluation of the effectiveness of teacher- vs. student-managed interventions with elementary school students. Psychology in the Schools, 25, 154-163.
Harrris, K. R., Graham, S., Reid, R., McElroy, K., & Hamby, R. S. (1994). Self-monitoring of attention versus self-monitoring of performance: replication and cross-task comparison studies. Learning Disability Quarterly, 17, 121-139.
Jolivette, K., & Ramsey, M. (2006). Students with emotional and behavioral disorders can manage their own behavior. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(2), 14-21.
Rafferty, L. (2010) Step-by-step: Teaching students to self-monitor. Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(2), 50-58.