Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Executive function foundations

The Landmark School Outreach Program has published a language-based teaching series for teachers looking to enhance their skills working with students with language based learning disabilities. Patricia W. Newhall's book, Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, looks at executive functioning from a slightly different angle than many other authors I have read.

She broadly defines executive function (EF) as "the brain's ability to coordinate the cognitive and psychological processes needed to initiate, sustain, monitor, and adapt the behaviors and attitudes required to achieve a goal" (p.2). This idea that executive function is the underlying skill that enables one to accomplish something is a common thread. She includes Howard Gardner's concept- the integration of
  • the hill- establishment of a clear goal
  • the skill- the requisite abilities and techniques for attaining that goal
  • the will- volition to begin and persevere until the goal is reached (p.71)
Where she goes off a little is in using Brown's 2007 paradigm in seeing the skills as clusters: action, memory, emotion, effort, focus and activation (p. 4). She sees EF troubles as stemming from one of two points- academic weaknesses that stress the prefrontal lobe so as to be unable to bring to bear EF skills or EF weaknesses that interfere with the brain's ability to learn academic skills. On the surface, a teacher might see a student with little motivation to learn, task persistence, or organization yet deeper study is required to identify the weak points and present instruction in a way that meaningfully improves instruction.

Landmark clearly promotes student centered instruction. Throughout the book references to students self-awareness of what is going on, active multisensory learning and inquiry learning abound. This may be more challenging for some teachers to implement than others. Issues around curriculum pacing, content covered and large class sizes are ignored throughout.

One important detail that she points out is that initiation issues are often the result of emotional motivation concerns whereas persistence of effort more often result from poor goal-orientation. Seeing what behaviors the student exemplifies indicates where the intervention needs to occur.

The book offers some useful worksheets to help students and teachers assess general EF skills and motivation. These are available online in modifiable formats for both younger and older students. The book also offers many strategies to help students be successful. One I particularly liked was her class wrap-up strategy (closure activity). It includes a checklist for what study skills were focused on, and short answer responses to identifying the most important concept and what is desired for review. Using this kind of approach improves metacognition of these underlying skills that we often expect students to have that are trouble spots for people with EF weaknesses. I have previously commented on her inclusion of card sort type activities.

The book includes a series of case studies but leaves the thinking entirely up to the reader. While intro questions are provided, a thoughtful debrief is missing. These vignettes might be useful if the text were used in a professional learning opportunity. Overall a short easy to read book full of good suggestions for both individual interventions and whole class instruction aimed at improving EF skills and academic proficiency.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

student anxiety

I have a child with ASD and its frequently comorbid cousin, anxiety. I worked with a student who could not attend school because of anxiety.  The August edition of ASCD's Education Update includes an article entitled "Helping Ease Student Anxiety" by Sarah McKibben, talks about anxiety. I have seen extreme anxiety as it impacts students, and this article rings true.

First she says look for clues:
1. somatic complaints- My son could not sleep. He picked his fingertips raw and then had sore hands. Some students have mysterious aches- headache, stomach aches, generally not feeling well. Be sure to rule out physiological problems. A student with a bladder infection needs to go to the bathroom a lot. So might a student with a nervous bladder. Students with chronic complaints should be checked out by a doctor.
2. distorted cognition- preoccupation with failure or perfectionism. Catastrophic thinking. Black or white universes.
3. behavior- mostly avoidance. This could be skipping class, putting a head down, refusing to answer, not attempting assignments or a variety of other things.
Students who exhibit these clues should be suspected of having anxiety. Remember we are lay people not diagnosticians. Suggest it as a possibility to investigate. Keep observing for clues.

She then offers some tips for avoiding or mitigating anxiety in the classroom.
  • Tackle tensions- moving to non-preferred activities can provide a focus on anxiety. To keep kids from becoming disregulated she suggests minimizing downtime and starting class with a soft activity that is more motivating than hard-core. Instead of "bell-work" she suggests a review game or video. This could present a logistic challenge for a teacher who needs a few minutes at the beginning of class to complete administrative tasks like attendance.
  • Cognitive Distractors- Often I see breaks as accommodations on IEPs, but McKibben suggests a wander break may not be enough. Some students will wander the halls or sketch on a pad and dwell on the anxiety trigger, resulting in no behavior change. Data should be kept on whether the structured break provides a reduction in anxiety or not. Instead of merely walking around a school loop, have them sing a favorite song while they walk, complete an unrelated task like Sudoku or hidden pictures, or perform an unrelated automatic memory task- tell me the names of your cousins or about your favorite football team or, for my son, your latest bottle acquisition.
  • Make it manageable- break tasks down and present in chunks to reduce the scope of the project. This is especially true of long term projects, but even a worksheet full of questions can be too intimidating. Cut it into sections and present one section at a time. Instead of three directions, provide only one.
  • Apply a label- Use language to label fears specifically and in detail. This is a great way to approach catastrophic thinking. Professionals who deal with anxiety will use this as a first step in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), the preferred intervention for anxiety.
  • Teach physical signs- controlled muscle tension exercises to identify what physical signs are present with anxiety and tension. Rate feelings on a scale.
  • Help initiate- sometimes the hardest part is getting started. Help students to complete the beginning. I thing her idea of having a student start writing in class and stop- midword/sentence- and then go home to finish. Most students can finish a started word. I fear that most would be unsettled with leaving a word unfinished which might elevate anxiety, but it might be different kid to kid.
  • Check in- once you start them off, let them know you will check in at certain points, perhaps ten minute intervals. Working side by side with another peer might be enough.
  • Private praise- while some students love public praise, many with anxiety hate being pointed out. Perhaps ask how they liked to receive recognition. A quiet nod might be what makes one happy while a posted perfect paper is good for another.

Her suggestions are solid from the classroom ideas that might make the difference for some kids. Mostly work as a team to get to know those students and what works for each one individually. Anxiety is more present in schools than ever before. We need to help students deal with it so they are better prepared for the world beyond us.

Executive funcition- language based materials

Patricia W. Newhall's book in the Language-Based Teaching Series, Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, strongly encourages multisensory learning experiences. One strategy presented in the second chapter is manipulative sorting. Several of her suggestions are card sorts and games. While I have used card sorts to preteach vocabulary and games to reinforce concepts and vocabulary, one of her ideas struck me as useful.

She suggests taking quotes from a book or pertinent paragraph, break it up into sentences or utterances and have students sort them. When I was thinking about this, I thought this could be a great tool for helping with understanding classics and created the simple example below for Romeo and Juliet. Student groups get the cards cut up and are asked to organize them in a meaningful way. (You might want to add more quotes- pick the ones that you are focusing on in class.) Chronological order, speaker, or theme are a couple of possibilities.  Then they need to share with the whole group their results. Alternatively they could then be asked to sort by a different system. Both would involve doing, negotiating and thinking, all critical elements for learning. Another possibility for students involved in writing about the text would be to have students sort the quotes, then use them to write about the play.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
O Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. . . .
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. . . .
 

O, I am fortune’s fool! . . .
 

Then I defy you, stars.
A plague o' both your houses!
For never was a story of more woe [t]han this of Juliet and her Romeo.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet.
Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.

If a paragraph were broken into sentences, students could be asked to organize it into a meaningful manner. This could be based on content area review- take the a summary of a chapter and ask students to organize it so that it makes sense. It could also be a writing exercise- use information about topic sentences, concluding sentences and transitions to create the reconstruction and then write a paragraph using similar transitions.

Other suggested sort activities involve:
  • words- definitions- images
  • put in chronological order- either historical/literary events, steps in processes or numbers
  • questions and answers.
These ideas are great ways to involve students in activities that, hopefully, could involve total participation, a key feature for increasing achievement. They also reduce writing load- students do not need to rewrite the material. For students who struggle with academics, writing is often a four letter word. Providing opportunities to sort and tape means the students have the material without the frustration that comes with writing. Further if the sort takes place in a group, often other group members can fill in executive function weaknesses for each other. They can reinforce focus, task initiation and completion so that the work, and learning, occur.

Looking forward to the rest of the book...


Monday, August 14, 2017

Parent's guide to children with Executive function disorder

Rebecca Branstetter, book, The Everything Parent's Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder, is an easy to read book that focuses on presenting strategies to help children who struggle with executive functioning to learn skills and become more successful. The book has four main sections:
  • introduction- what is executive functioning (EF), how does it develop and what disorders are commonly associated with it
  • discussion of each area- 10 chapters focusing on different skill sets and strategies to help develop them
  • home life- what can you do at home- routines, advocacy, parenting and self-assessment
  • appendix- checklists of strategies for each skill area.

Branstetter divides executive functioning into ten areas: task initiation, response inhibition, focus, time management, working memory, flexibility, self-regulation, emotional self-control, task completion, and organization. She discusses two important issues. One, while some specific disabilities are often characterized as having some executive function issues, not all EF occurs with a disability. We all know someone who is chronically late, or whose room/office/desk is always a mess or who frequently puts his foot in his mouth, who has no disability. It is important to normalize these concerns. That being said, they are skills that can be improved through instruction or compensated for through actions. Two, EF skills are highly heritable and environment can reinforce good or bad EF skills. Often parents struggle with the same skills that their children struggle with and parents who are working to improve problem areas are modeling self-improvement and development in a healthy manner.

Another key idea of Branstetter is to limit focus. We cannot solve the problems of the world in a day, nor can we take a child whose life is a chaotic mess an expect to improve every aspect in an afternoon. Select one thing at a time and expect to spend some quality time on it. Do not get frustrated because initial attempts are not successful. Not all strategies work for all people. My daughter's method for getting homework home, completed and back to school would make me nuts, but it works for her. Some people respond well to word based checklists, but others need more detailed picture cues. Some need a break from school before they start in on homework while others need to keep going in the academic vein. Know your child. Children with EF concerns need to find the methods of support that work for them, not ones that work for the adult. That being said, it takes longer for these kids to learn and internalize these skills. You can collect data on progress- number of late homework assignments per week, number of prompts needed to get a room picked up, or number of tantrums per week. If a strategy is showing improvement, then stay with it, if not, modify it. We need to provide support for learning these skills as if for a much younger child. Reducing support too early will result in a backslide. Other authors suggest it takes children with EF weaknesses perhaps three times as long to learn the skills as other people. That means you are in it for the long haul.

One thing Branstetter comments upon is taking care of you. As the supportive adult to a child with EF challenges, you are in it for the duration. This is especially wearing. Find time for yourself. Enlist family members or friends to take over for child care for a while, hire tutors to take over homework monitoring or academic support, take a walk, find someone to help with housework. You may not need to do these things on a regular basis, but once in a while they are essential for maintaining sanity. Further, the self-care you do today may be very different from that you do tomorrow or that which you did last year. Just remember to recharge your batteries so you can be the best parent you can be.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

How to teach so students remember

 I placed a book order including Marilee Sprenger's How to Teach so Students Remember. When it arrived it seemed familiar and when I opened it up to scan the text I knew I had read it before. I searched my blog- no reference there. Clearly I did not learn the material well enough the first time through so I read it again. Some of the material that had not previously resonated with me clearly did this time. We want students to reread. We reread old favorites. This is why.

Marilee studied under E. Jensen, an educational specialist who looks at the implications of brain research on learning. She idenitifes a series of steps required to learn that she calls a memory cycle:
  1. Reach- students must be involved in the learning. Passive students do not learn.
  2. Reflect- compare what you know to what you are learning. What questions do you have about the material? Students may be asked to visualize, restate what they learned, made sense of confused. Explain what they just covered to a peer. As a teacher, this is part of my observation process.
  3. Recode- reorganize the information. Graphic organizers come into play. Presenting information is through different learning styles- act out the scene from the play, chemical action, historical event; produce a newscast of the activity; explain to your parents; create a metaphor...
  4. Reinforce- Feedback. Without feedback we do not grow. Malcom Gladwell spoke of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, but that is practice with feedback. How do you do better? Are you still confused about some areas? Are misconceptions still present in your understanding?  
  5. Rehearse- rote practice (flashcards, singing the alphabet song, answering questions using programs like quia, quizlet or StudyBlue, or IXL) and elaborative practice (apply, analyze or create using what you know) both play an important role in learning. This puts things into long term memory. Getting enough sleep is a critical component of this step. Sleep enables the brain to process information.
  6. Review- retrieve and manipulate information. More types of practice in a structured way. In order to get the material to be "remembered" it must have spaced review. That good old little bit of study each night rather than cramming is true. Cramming might get you through the test, but results in little real learning over time. Periodic spaced review enables long term learning.
  7. Retrieve- use the material over time in assessment situations and practice sections. For example after learning the parts of the cell, students move to learning about cellular processes. Throughout this second unit, they must use the first information.

When I think my students I break this into fewer steps- the cycle of reflect and recode. Reflect at first and get feedback about how you're doing with knowledge. It could be through a homework assignment, class activity, computer practice or independent activity like self-quizzing. Take the stuff that you struggle with and recode it: transform a chart into a paragraph, use a graphic organizer, make and explain a metaphor, classify pieces of information or ideas, craft a song, poem or video about the information, try to teach a friend using your resources, ... The list goes on. Then reflect again- how's the information gauge now? Self-test and assess. Repeat as necessary. As more information is added to the pile of things one must know, incorporate old learnings into the review process to ensure learning.

One really important thing that Marilee stresses is that kids don't know what they don't know. I remember graduating from college and thinking I knew it all. It was a rude shock to have people present information that I knew nothing about when it came to teaching. Now, nearly thirty years later, I know a lot more and will tell you I feel very ignorant because I know how much I don't know. Kids do not have the metacognition to answer an "Any questions?" response. They need to learn how to self-test and evaluate so that they can see where their strengths and weaknesses are.

Sprenger created the following chart that I have slightly modified to include extra details to showcase the next step (p. 167). I particularly like the recall verses recognition part.

If a student cannot recognize the material
Go back to reach- reteach the material in a different way. The flipped classroom may offer the opportunity to revisit information but if the student is not engaged or does not understand your explanation, the material needs to be presented a different way
If a student cannot put the facts, concept or procedure in his own words but can repeat yours
Go back to reflect- give more opportunities to wrestle with understanding the material. Perhaps more vocabulary front loading is required. Perhaps more support in going through the process of thinking, more time to process or more feedback about success.
If a student can’t recall during a review
Go back to recode- interpret, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining and using nonlinguistic representations are all possible parts of recoding. Provide better feedback about previous attempts or ask to recode in a different way.
If a student cannot recall on a practice quiz (name the steps of the scientific method, reduce the fraction, explain what genre this passage represents, identify the major battles and their significance)
Give a recognition quiz (multiple choice, true false, matching)
If a student can recognize but not recall
Go back to recode- try a new recoding process
If a student can recode but has difficulty with rehearsals
Go back to reinforcement and offer developmental feedback
If a student can apply, analyze and evaluate
Go to rehearsal and add creativity or another level of complexity; or review, assess and move on

For many of my students that is where they fall down. Teaching them to practice how they need to produce is important. If all you need to do is recognize the correct definition for the vocabulary word, flashcards will get you there. If you need to select the correct word to complete a novel sentence, recall is required. This level of skill is required. If students need to be able to draw and label the map they need to be able to do that in practice. Students who must be able to read a passage and identify implied character traits have a different challenge than being able to regurgitate a class discussion. If a graphic organizer was used to recode, but the test requires paragraph writing, the student needs to be able to use the organizer to write a paragraph. We must identify the demands of the assessment and provide instruction on the memory skills to that point, and perhaps beyond.

Overall Sprenger reinforces the idea that students need increased self-awareness of the process of learning and memory so that they can independently perform the tasks required for cementing things into long term memory and getting them out again. This helps them to have the motivation to put in the effort it takes to truly learn material.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Memory at work in the classroom- literacy orientation

Francis Bailey and Ken Pransky's book, Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students, originates from their experience working with English Language Learners, a traditionally underachieving group. Their insights are true for many underachievers, especially those who have language weaknesses, regardless of whether they are language learners or not. In the opening of their book they discuss core social learning concepts: memory is socially and culturally constructed, there are two distinct communities of learners and quality learning interactions are predicated on mediated learning experiences.

Their idea of two distinct learning communities is an intriguing one. They group learners into literacy and non-literacy oriented. Literacy oriented ones usually come from families with more formal education. Schools are designed to work with these students and consequently they tend to be more successful in schools. Non-literacy oriented communities also want their children to do well, but tend to fail to support their children in as productive manner when it relates to school- they use less academic vocabulary and sophisticated grammar structures commonly utilized in school settings. They present the slightly modified chart below to highlight the differences between the two orientations (p. 29-30).

Non-literacy orientation
Literacy orientation
Limited ability to independently use written texts, such as dictionaries, references and subject matter texts to mediate their own learning
More ability to independently use written texts, such as dictionaries, references and subject matter texts to mediate their own learning
Limited metalinguistic awareness, especially at younger ages
Greater metalinguistic awareness, especially at younger ages
Limited ability to independently use genres of economic, etc literacy- academic,.
More skillful at independently using genres of literacy
Limited ability to independently and skillfully use a variety of written texts
Able to independently and skillfully use a variety of written texts
Often less willing to independently persevere in learning challenging content that is not seen as valuable or of immediate personal interest, especially as students get older
More apt to independently persevere in learning challenging content that is not seen as valuable or of immediate personal interest, especially as students get older
Smaller and less sophisticated knowledge of vocabulary (for ELLs this includes in their native language)
Larger and more sophisticated knowledge of vocabulary
Less developed grammatical complexity in oral and written language (for ELLs this includes in their native language)
More developed grammatical complexity in oral and written language
Typically less confident as an independent, self-directed learner in academic settings, needing more teacher direction
Typically more confident as an independent, self-directed learner in academic settings, needing less teacher direction


The authors fail to recognize the types of settings and skills in which non-literacy oriented students may be more successful. These might include greater social skills, community awareness and an increased ability to be successful when perfect performance rather than graduated performance is correct.

Obviously these children struggle in schools; their foundation in the art of doing school is remarkably less well developed. That does not mean they cannot be successful, rather that they need increased support to reach the same point because of their different orientation. Some of their general strategies to help them succeed include: developing relationships, increased vocabulary focus (not the present 20 words on Monday and test on Friday variety!), increased chunking and supported practice, more concrete and visual basis for learning, teaching weak executive function skills, and increased discussion and reflection time. Every classroom would benefit from these adaptations- not just ones with students with disabilities or non-native speakers. By increasing awareness of the challenges that orientation present, a teacher can modify instruction to develop and increase motivation as well as make explicit the keys to learning.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Memory at work: Attention Span

We've all had them: the students who have attention spans of gnats who need constant stimulation and still struggle with attending. Last year I worked in a preschool where morning circle was punctuated with a couple of students inevitably getting frequent redirections and reprimands to pay attention and keep their hands to themselves. At the time I postulated that the 45 minutes of circle was to blame, but as a guest in the classroom, was hesitant to comment as "my" student generally was on target with his behavior. Now I have research to use to help with this assumption. Francis Bailey and Ken Pransky wrote Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students. On page 87 they posit several rules2 theory of thumb for attention span:
  • age +2 minutes
  • 3-5 minutes per each year of age
  • adults have 20 minutes
That rule of thumb is complicated with interest. If someone is very interested in something, they have a longer attention span than if they are not interested in it. This explains why those darlings with ADHD might be able to play a video game for an hour without a break, but can only work on a math worksheet for 3 minutes before getting wiggly.

I really like the age + 2 plan. Some of those preschoolers were deeply engaged in morning circle which included calendar, weather, singing group songs, reviewing the day's agenda and a story. Some were not so deeply engaged. They were not the one checking the weather and need prompting to sing the "What's the Weather" song. Bland readings of stories without exciting previews, engaging voices, and teacher enthusiasm were less engaging to many. Collectively students needed more action- songs with motions and movement- and more hype. One challenge to teaching this age group is the constant need to be enthralled with whatever is going on regardless of how routine it is. These kids needed an activity change at least every 6 minutes and without it, were behavior problems.

Bailey and Pransky suggest both classroom and individual strategies to address the executive function of sustained attention (p. 90). From a classroom standpoint:
  • Preferential seating- surround with good attenders, away from distractions
  • discuss distractions and suggestions for dealing with them
  • explicitly teach what paying attention and listening are and what they look like
  • be intentional about time chunks
  • include more steps to help break up longer tasks
  • have part of the instructions for the group include specific training in behavioral expectations.
  • use total participation techniques.
This is not just for our classic struggling students- the ones with IEPs and 504 plans or ADHD diagnoses. Many students without diagnoses benefit from these strategies so teaching the group makes sense.

Some students need more than the instruction for the group. Their strategies need to based on each child. From an individual standpoint:
  • have a signal for redirecting students- with my preschooler, I used the sign for look
  • establish a self-monitoring checklist
  • utilize metacognition- when can the student focus, how does it feel, how can that information be used in the classroom
  • have the student have a signal for waning attention: perhaps a break card
We can help our students develop better attention, but we need to start where they are and teach skills. While some students may need medication to help them learn these skills, medication only opens the door. They need instruction to teach them to step through. This is especially true as they age and have learned habits of inattention which must be broken before they learn skills of attending. A difficult task, but well worth the investment.