Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Promoting Executive Function

I was at a staff meeting and a collegue was presenting on his research into executive function. I overheard someone in the audience ask a peer what executive function was. Her answer was organization and stuff like that. We clearly need a better definition than that, but there is little agreement in the field regarding how many categories there are in executive function. Sarah Ward posited that it probably didn't matter what specific framework you used, as long as you understood the gist of it all. Dawson and Guare identify 11 categories.  Lynn Meltzer's book, Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom breaks executive function into five components:
  1. goal setting, planning and prioritizing
  2. organizing
  3. using working memory- remembering
  4. shifting and flexible problem solving
  5. self-monitoring, self-checking and self-regulating

These are pretty big categories so it is easy to see how other authors could use other breakdowns. I agree that the specifics probably don't matter. What matters is that these skills are systematically taught and reinforced. Teachers who refuse to teach these skills because they don't have time or the kids are supposed to know them are causing themselves pain: students will not learn as well or as quickly, they will not remember as well and will do less well when it comes to grades. It behooves us to teach the missing and needed skills rather than bemoan their absence.

Meltzer provides a structure for teaching strategies for developing executive function. Having a structured approach is essential in creating a dynamic in which all students learn and apply the strategy. Strategy instruction can take place side-by-side with content instruction. It is not a case of either-or.

I very much enjoyed her section on students with flexibility problems. When I took my son in to be evaluated the SLP greeted him. She asked him if he had any pets and he responded that he wanted a cat. She looked at him and said, "but you already have Cat [my daughter]." The look of confusion on his face was precious. I remember reading a book about wacky ads to him. He read the first page, did not get it and put it down. I ended up reading it to him an explaining every single entry, at which point he broke out laughing. (I hated this book as my compulsive child insisted we read the entire book in one sitting.) "Dog for sale- eats anything and is fond of children" remains a favorite to this day. We need to remember that some of our kids do not get these language plays and we need to scaffold them. Few people understood my son's limits because we did so much read- and explaining- at home.

Meltzer highlighted many techniques throughout her book. She highlighted BrainCOGS as a program that was very useful. I had trouble accessing the actual site but this link explains the program. She also frequently quotes ResearchILD, an organization that she is the president of. One strategy that I have not specifically used by name is three column notes. Having looked at examples, I have used this technique with students and found it to be effective for organizing information. Edmond Schools has a lovely page with information about this strategy. Below are a couple of examples that I put together.

Meltzer also highlighted mnemonics. These memory strategies are so powerful. We need to teach students how to create and use them. Below are some mnemonic examples.
Overall this book is a delightful, easy to read gold mine of strategies and applications. I highly recommend it.

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