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.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting things done

When I drive long distances, I like to listen to audiobooks. Over the years we have listened to a variety of works. While it is more challenging to listen to many nonfiction titles, I enjoy putting them on anyway. Over my last trip I listened to David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, an abridged version of the book. Allen is a personal productivity guru. He supports organizations and executives to help them become more productive.

One of his underlying assumptions is that most stress is caused by open loops in your life. Open loops being incomplete things that are in your mind. This could be the result of over-commitment or poor organization. One of his primary activities with people is to gather all things in an in box and then begin sorting. First they should be sorted into action or no action.
No action- trash (throw it away), maybe someday, reference (file)
action- can be done in two minutes or less (do it now) or put next action on the calendar.

His key focus is to determine what the next action is. Any project (something with more than one action step) needs to be broken down into the next action. His insistence that you determine next actions helps facilitate activity and avoid procrastination. Critical is breaking projects down by next action. Going out to dinner with your spouse requires many  actions: select a day and time, select a restaurant, get phone number, make reservations, select an outfit, clean the car, go out... You just need to do the next step. When you break things down into the next action, not worrying about all the subsequent steps it helps you to move on a project.

Interestingly, this fits neatly into my executive function research. Many of my students struggle with projects. They need help breaking down projects into manageable steps, much like the executives Allen works with. Being able to draw this comparison may help to normalize this activity for my students.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dare to be different- differentiation and gifted children

When my daughter was in primary school her principal told me that no kids was teased or bullied because he or she was smart. I was too stunned to contradict him. Really. Kids will select any difference as a rallying point for teasing. As a bright child I was teased about my smarts, especially in elementary school. That some deny this happens is disturbing because it can deny a key feature of some children's experiences. Trudy H. Saunders's article, "Dare to be Different: How Teachers Can Eliminate Social Stigmatism While Differentiating Instruction," in the August edition of Teaching for High Potential, tackles the concept of stigmatization due to ability.

Before talking about what works in terms of differentiation, she talks about what doesn't- extra work and peer tutoring during academic time. It made me angry when I was looking at how my district worked with high ability kids and a parent stepped up to talk about how great his daughter's teacher was- she sent home the work at her level so that the child could do it with mom and dad during her free time. My nephew's teachers had him write longer reports- not different in any way other than increasing the length requirement. I talked with one parent whose child got to teach the struggling kids in class- this was a 2nd grader. How is that child really helping those struggling learners? How is it expanding his learning? My daughter talked about being paired up with a struggling learner on a regular basis because then the work would get done- yes, my daughter did it all. None of these showcase any skill in meeting individual student needs. They mostly constitute busy work.

So what should be done? Differentiation is a tool that Carol Ann Tomlinson promotes to meet the needs of diverse learners. I caution anyone against using one strategy for all kids, but done well, differentiation does meet the needs of most kids. Done well is the key term here. Saunders points out the consequences of poorly executed differentiation: academic stagnation, boredom and hiding. When my daughter's eighth grade English class tackled To Kill a Mockingbird over the course of three and a half months my daughter was not just bored and not challenged, but not learning. She read the book in under a week and then had to dabble through the curriculum with the class. Yes this was challenging reading for most of her classmates, but no allowances were made for her. A big move of CCSS has been close reading of challenging material. She was expected to annotate material, especially things that were confusing. When there is nothing there that you struggled with, forced annotation makes a student want to never read again. She could have been given a separate charge that required a deeper level of understanding. Parallel reading, research in lieu of work comparative character analysis all would have been ways to increase the challenge and maybe provided some learning opportunities.

To do differentiation well, Saunders makes a few suggestions: flexible grouping, learning stations, learning contracts and tiered lessons. A common myth is that gifted kids don't like group work. The real truth is they don't like group work where they have to do all the work if they want a good grade. They thrive on group work with their academic peers. Homogeneous classes, intentional clusters and pull out enrichments are all strategies to meet their need for cognitive challenge. Interestingly we have no trouble having varsity sports teams where the best players are with JV, modified and club teams for other levels. We would scream blaspheme if someone were to suggest a no cut everyone play rule for football, but that is totally what we do in academics. We grow in a skill set when the work is just right and our peers are there. Gifted kids also like interest based groups. This provides a central idea around which ideas can develop. Learning to work with diverse is important, and pulls our struggling students up, but too much destroys the educational opportunities of our brightest students.

Learning stations are common in elementary classes but far less prevalent as students get older. Stations can require that students work on material at their individual level with particular materials, be highly individualized, like computer based instruction, or enable students to stay longer at stations where they need extra help or show extra interest. They can be combined with contracts or tiers to meet student needs. I read about one teacher who had three levels of material at each station- and coded them with skiing terms for level of difficulty. Anyone could attempt material from higher levels but some students were required to work at certain levels to meet their needs. This could mean there were readings at different reading levels, higher level thinking questions at some levels, more or less nice to know information at some levels.

We need to teach our gifted kids to be proud of their skills. They need to learn how to work with challenges. They need to not try and hide their success because it leads to more boring work, constantly being paired up with struggling learners or teasing. Teachers first need to be aware of the stigmatization that these kids experience, then they need to figure out how to meet the needs of these difficult to educate kids.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Understand your Brain

Ari Tuckman wrote Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook for adults with ADHD experiencing executive function issues and ready to work on it. As a workbook, it is meant to be done independently, but not necessarily sequentially. Having read it through there are repetitive, but if someone were to hunt and peck through the text, as the author recommends, this would be less of an issue.

Tuckman identifies 7 areas of executive function that often impact the lives of people with ADHD: response inhibition, working memory, sense of time, prospective memory, emotional self-control, self-activation, and forethought and hind thought. Each element has a chapter with strategies centered around two or three main ideas. For example, for working memory he identifies the following three basic ideas into which strategies can be categorized:
  1. Make important tasks and items stand out more to make it more likely that your attention will stay focused on them.
  2. The fewer distractions, the easier it is to stay focused on and remember what you should.
  3. Write things down rather than keep them in your head. (p. 42)
This brings back college. Anytime I had a paper to write or a test to study for, the first thing I did was clean my room. I knew that if my room and desk were disheveled, I would be distracted and have difficulty focusing. Some people looked at me funny when I said I had a paper to write and they saw me taking the trash out or fetching the vacuum. It was what I needed to do. I learned to allot time in my process to pick the place up before I started and I was then able to complete the academic task at hand. People with ADHD often struggle against picking things up and putting them where they belong, but if they are put away, they become less distracting and you are able to accomplish more. This idea of limiting distractions is seen in several areas of the book, a testament to the challenge and thus the importance of this activity.

The book is full of place to be involved. It asks the individual to identify which strategies they have used, what their past experiences with the strategy was, obstacles that interfere with using the strategy and how and where it might be used in your life. For example, one element under the first category in working memory is "do it right away." When a permission slip came home I always immediately signed it, attached an envelope with any necessary funds and returned it to the child's backpack via a homework folder. Otherwise I forgot to do it. With my email, I try to immediately respond to anything so that I do not lose it in my in box.

After identifying past strategy use, the author asks you to select two from each category to examine in more depth. Then he ask the reader to select a couple of strategies to try out. He proposes making a written commitment to try them out and to visualize the rewards of using them. He also suggests including a personal reward for using the strategies. Once strategies have been tried out, he asks the reader to evaluate their implementation. His book stresses the idea that things are hard, and refinement of implementation is essential. He suggests looking at how they present lessons to learn about work, relationships and home life. This self evaluation is critical for helping to maintain motivation. Presumably learning to do better will improve your life. Recognizing that making a difficult change has benefits and what precisely those benefits are is essential.

While the target audience of this book is people with ADHD, others with executive function weaknesses would benefit from many of these exercises. While many of these tasks could be used with high school students, younger students would be likely to struggle with the self-evaluation and meta-cognition required to use this strategy without extensive support.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

response on raising the bar

Once again the concept of raising the bar is in the news. We are confronted with this question- What should a diploma mean?

  • Should a diploma be a minimum bar over which students should aspire to stumble over, as it has been for some states as some points of time?
  • Should it be an elevated standard that denotes a level of achievement that will indicate students will be successful in college or a career, as the Common Core Standards advocates?
  • Should it be something everyone should aspire to?
  • Should it indicate some superior level of performance that everyone can achieve?
  • Should an employer be able to look at the fact that a student has a diploma and believe that this student has the raw ability to be trainable in his environment?
  • Is it something that must be earned or is it an entitled right?
  • Is it about time served or amount learned?

Because we are not sure what a diploma should mean, our education system flounders, wandering this way and that, not doing a good job of meeting any of the objectives.

Kathleen Mikulka  addresses this question in her response to Maine's increased standards for graduation. Maine will require students to earn an 80 or better on 8 proficiency exams in order to earn a diploma. Problems abound around this idea, particularly the fact that the exams are locally developed and thus not comparable to each other or married to any standard. Mikulka's primary objection appears to be that her students with special needs might not be able to pass the exams and thus create young people "with no future."

If the exams are easy enough to be passed by everyone, a strategy that districts could take, they are meaningless. Employers or colleges want to see a diploma and know what that means. Students who lack the ability to apply themselves in a way to be successful on the exams (those with emotional disabilities are the largest group of non-diploma winners) or lack the ability to be successful on the exams might have a future confronted with limitations. Poor social-emotional skills will prevent them from being successful in the real world. Is it better to have students not fail in school but fail in life, or fail in school where maybe they can later learn the skills to be successful in life.

I know it is hard to have a child who puts forth every effort only to fail or barely pass, but that is life. No matter how hard you try, there are things you will not achieve- as a middle aged 5'2" female with poor coordination will never be an NBA player, more than half the people who want to be president, in spite of trying very hard, never make it. I would rather have the hard working high school non-finisher on my team than the lackadaisical, diploma-granted, entitled one. Many employers will tell you that it is not cognitive skills that enable individuals to be successful in jobs but soft skills- things like punctuality, initiative, manners, diligence, and persistence. Some employers see a college degree not in terms of a person having particular content skills, but in terms of him being trainable. As employment tests have been increasingly thrown out of use by courts, employers have raised the education bar because it is a mark of work ethic, not acquired skill level. Yes, employers want employees who can write a decent report, read a manual, do basic arithmetic without a calculator, and speak intelligibly, but they also want them to show up on time, put away their devices, work for their full shift and be pleasant throughout. If we are only teaching the former "content" skills, our children find themselves with a limited future regardless of their diploma status.

We need to decide what it means to have earned a diploma. Then we need to focus our efforts toward that goal. Yes, some will not earn a diploma. Some people will never be in the NBA, paint award winning pictures, perform at Carnegie Hall or be employed at a fortune 500 company. That is ok. We need to view all work as valuable- regardless of its income potential. People have a future until they are dead. Yes, some will have to work their backsides off while others will seem to breeze through with no troubles.  When we see some jobs as more worthy, when we tell kids who are not going to be the top 1% or 20% or 50% they are not as worthy we have a problem.  Most are not going to be in that top 1% or 20% or 49.9999%, we need to get comfortable with whosoever we are.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Brain based teaching in a digital age

Marilee Sprenger wrote Br@in-Based Teaching:) in the Digital Age in 2010 and in the intervening years technology has certainly continued to advance with a rapid pace. Neuroscience has made huge discoveries as well. That said, there is much to glean from this book. One of the Appendices probably should be in the introduction- How the brain works is really what underlies many of her assertions.

Her research indicates a huge need for non-technology interactions. Like so many things moderation is important and variety is the spice of life. Kids who are glued to their devices need to learn to interact without them just as they need to be used as part of the learning spectrum. She talks about how the brain changes in response to stimulus. There is lots of research on this if you want some interesting reading (here, here, and here for example). Children who are exposed to huge amounts of fast-paced, visual input have more synapses around their visual cortex than those who do not. These children need to be trained in how to use focus when interpreting visual information as well as instruction in responding to auditory information. They need to work in groups and learn social skills that are often poorly developed because they spend so much time glued to their devices, even in social settings.

Sprenger cautions against, however, blaming technology for loss of creativity. She suggests looking at the loss of unstructured time for our kids as a large cause of limited imagination and creativity. This is not just in school where recess has been targeted for elimination to make way for ELA and math instruction, but with parents who plan exclusively organized events for their kids- team sports, classes, and parent supervised games have free play in the neighborhood playground. While the world is not necessarily a more dangerous place, we refrain from allowing our kids from traveling around their environment independently. A family recently had their children removed because they were allowed to walk home from the park independently. We need to promote unstructured time away from technology to promote well being for our children.

One strategy that Sprenger strongly supports is mind mapping. Using these graphic organizers helps kids form linkages and organize their important information. She also supports using music to link information in the brain. These two tools- music and mind maps- help to strengthen memories. We need to teach children to use these strategies if they are to effectively use them to enhance learning.

Many of us may have learned that people can maintain 7 pieces of information in our short term memory. Sprenger points out an important detail- that number grows as children develop. They begin with one bit of memory at age three and increase their capacity one bit every other year through the age of 15 (see the chart below).

Number of memory bits

Sprenger's information forms a good foundation to understanding neurological function and the brain. While the pace of discovery is fast, understand the tenants she lays forth, will help teachers design better instruction for children.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Brain-based teaching- special classes

Marilee Sprenger's book, Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age, discusses the impact of the digital exposure on the brain. The second chapter brings up a special point- specials matter. Much research demonstrated that with the onset of 3-8 testing through NCLB, time spent on untested areas went down. Special education teachers and related services such as physical therapy pull from non-critical time in school (if this isn't a joke I don't know what is)- social studies, science, art, music, recess and PE all suffered as a result of the increased accountability in reading and math. There is a cost associated with the reductions in those specials, and Marilee clearly points it out.

Exercise- think PE and recess:
  • Improves attention and motivation by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.
  • Decreases impulsivity by activation of frontal lobe structures that inhibit random, divergent actions and thoughts through the release of more dopamine and serotonin.
  • Creates more positive moods, lowers anxiety, and raises self-esteem through the release of more serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Helps overcome learned helplessness by improving resilience, improving self-confidence, and raising the ability to withstand stress and frustration.
  • Causes stem cells in the brain to divide, which creates the possibility for making new brain cells.
  • Adds new brain cells to the hippocampus (the memory control area) and may also add to the frontal cortex, where executive functioning takes place.
  • Adds to the "chemical soup" that promotes the growth and survival of new neurons. (p. 21-2)
When we think about sleepy teenagers who cannot keep their heads up, we should think about motion to get their blood flowing and to stimulate their brains. When kids have tests, we can start the experience with yoga or an exercise to help prep them for the experience. When we work with new learnings, a bout of movement will help them to focus on information. Studies have demonstrated that a movement period a day increases tests scores even if time on task is decreased. Research has also shown that for students with ADHD spending 45 minutes a day in aerobic exercise significantly improves their ability to regulate their behavior. In Finland students have 15 minutes of break time for every 45 minutes of instruction. Their students excel on international tests. Movement makes sense, especially for boys whose brains are more likely to be wired to learn better with movement.

Art- this really is fine arts- both traditional art and music classes as well as dance and drama.
  • Music training has a positive relation to mathematics reasoning, particularly in geometry.
  • Music training is closely correlated with improvements in reading fluency, reading attainment, and sequence learning.
  • Music training and acting are associated with improvements in working memory.
  • Learning to dance by watching others may be as effective as learning through physical movement; this observation may also transfer to other cognitive abilities. (p. 23)
Other research also supports this idea. Nick Rabkin points out in his review of the research:
in the visual arts, there are findings about how drawing supports writing skills and how visualization training supports interpretation of text. In music, researchers found strong connections to spatial reasoning and math, and between instrument instruction and SAT scores. Dance instruction was connected to fluency in creative thinking and to reading skills. Drama in the form of dramatic enactment was connected to story comprehension, character understanding, and writing proficiency, and is shown to be a better way for students to process a story than teacher-led discussion. Multi-arts programs, as you might expect, had multiple connections: to reading, verbal, and math skills, and to creative thinking. ... Dance is connected to self-confidence and persistence; music to self-efficacy and self-concept; drama to concentration, comprehension, conflict resolution, and self-concept; multi-arts to achievement motivation, cognitive engagement, self-confidence, risk-taking, perseverance, and leadership. Several studies show that children become more engaged in their studies when the arts are integrated into their lessons. Others show that at-risk students often find pathways through the arts to broader academic successes.
It is crazy that we do not see these subjects as critical to learning. They are not just enrichment, they are the basis of success.

Stimulating the brain in many ways is essential to its growth. If you do not knead dough by stretching all of it in many directions you do not get a good loaf of bread. Similarly, if you do not push and pull the brain in different ways you do not get as good a result. Lynne Kenney uses the idea that the arts, especially music and movement are essential to learning in her book, 70 Play Activities. We need to defend our children's specials as essential to their performance in school. We need to integrate arts and movement into classroom instruction. We need to see the importance in getting kids off their chairs, away from their screens and into active learning.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Causes and Cures

Margaret Searle's book, Causes & Cures in the Classroom: Getting to the Root of Academic and Behavior Problems, spurred my interest because of the focus on executive function (EF) skills and the cool graphic I saw in the ASCD catalog.

Searle divides EF skills into five groups:
  1. Planning and problem solving,
  2. memory skills,
  3. organization,
  4. focusing attention,
  5. impulse control and self-monitoring.
After an introductory chapter about EF skills, she devotes one chapter to each group of skills.  Searle's framework includes a series of graphic organizers that I am sure to enlarge, copy and laminate for future reference. They list several underlying causes of concerns and possible subskills. For example, if a student has trouble getting started, it is often do to a challenge in one of three areas: inability to visualize a goal, inability to visualize an action plan, or lacking a sense of urgency. If the challenge is hypothesized to be related to inability to visualize a goal, then possible root causes include: inability to visualize the final product, not thinking the goal is important or reasonable, or not knowing how to set goals and subgoals (p. 22). The graphic makes this much easier to read. The unfortunate part is that the graphic does not include possible interventions about each root cause. A great interactive would allow someone to click on a cause and bring up a variety of strategies designed to address the concern.

This book is designed to be read by general education classroom teachers. The thought being that while many kids with disabilities have EF weaknesses, these challenges occur in the general population, in part because the human brain area that governs EF skills, the prefrontal lobe, does not mature until a person is in his mid-twenties. Like all other skills, we develop fluency slowly over time, each with a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. People can learn to improve these skills regardless of disability and upbringing. A caution that the author presents is that,
"issues like the need for medication, poor support from home, learning disabilities, and dysfunctional families definitely affect students and can make teaching harder, but teachers usually have little control over them. If we cannot control the issue, it is fruitless to waste time having a conversation about it during the analysis talk,..." (p. 23)
This is critical. We can choose to throw up our hands and say we have no control so there is nothing we can do or we can say we can still teach and reach these youngsters, even if it is harder through no fault of our own.

Her approach for solving problems involves two parts: the five Whys, a process developed by Toyota to solve problems, and a basic problem solving framework. Under the five whys, she asserts that multiple reiterations of questions (often at least five) are required to solve a problem. Questions such as:
  • Why do you think the student does that?
  • What would cause the student to think that way?
  • What skills do you think the student lacks that other students the dame age understand and use?
  • What is keeping the student from learning these skills?
  • What should we concentrate on first? (p. 21-23)
Much like cognitive coaching that I am working on, this is all about using questions to get to the bottom of the problem, then working upward from there.

Her basic steps of problem solving include:
  • Know the traits of the student or group to be supported
  • Analyze the root causes
  • Set clear and measurable goals
  • Decide how to monitor and chart student progress
  • Compose the intervention options and select a plan.
In the first step she has the team identify strengths as well as behavior and academic challenges. Then they analyze the challenge using the five whys approach. Hypotheses are developed about the problem and solutions are sought out.

Searle emphasizes the critical role of self-monitoring. She wants students to chart their success. If an approach is not beginning to encounter success, perhaps the understanding of the root cause is wrong. Research has definitely shown that student graphing of progress is motivating to success.

Once the plan has been worked out, she presents the plan on a chart. This showcases how the entire team is part of the solution. The best plans involve everyone. Spelling out the various roles gives each person on the team concrete pieces to play in addressing a concern.

Skills needed
Teaching strategies
Student responsibilities
Suggestions for parents

Another important component to her program is the linkage of EF challenges to academic challenges. In the memory chapter she shows how persistent math challenges frequently co-occur. Organizational challenges tend to be comorbid with writing problems. Attentional challenges tend to be comorbid with reading comprehension issues. Acknowledging that EF issues underlie many academic challenges means that when one exists, searching to see if the other does could lead to a pathway to intervention. In the respective chapters she includes a graphic chart- similar to the ones for the EF skills themselves.

This book offers some evidence based strategies for intervening in EF challenges, but they are limited by the size of the book. Searle acknowledges that interventions can be individual, small-group or large group, depending on what skills peers demonstrate as well. Seeing a group of students utilizing a strategy can destigmatize interventions.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

FLIPP the Switch

I begin this post with the same identifying information as the last: In my quest to further develop my understanding of Executive Function (EF) disorders, I picked up FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills by Sheri Wilkins and Carol Burmeister. My pervious posting was about an EF workbook for teens (see here). Its target audience is higher functioning teen agers who can use it with little support. This book targets people with more significant challenges. Strategies include strong visual components that would be especially useful for people with ASD. In fact, having looked through the resources section of the book, the vast majority target the autism population specifically.

This book is a fabulous resource. After a brief introduction about what EF skills are, the authors go into five chapters describing strategies to support each area of EF skills: flexibility, leveled emotionality, impulse control, planning and problem solving. My previous post discussed one strategy in the flexibility area. In the emotionality section it talks about choice cards and chunking skills mirrored in the last section of problem solving where work systems and task analysis are discussed. Under impulse control PBIS is discussed along with reminder cards which reinforce the planner skills addressed under the planning section. Interdependency of EF skills is highlighted. The challenge may not be identifying what specific area is impacted but where is the most prudent place to intervene. Also throughout the book are many printable templates for their suggested strategies. Although many are easy to replicate on your own, having the sample is a great way to get started.

Behavior management techniques are interwoven throughout the text: reward positive progress, move from tangible to social rewards, track data. Clearly the authors have done their fair share of behavioral interventions in self-contained, general education, home and workplace settings with kids of all range of ages. The visual cueing is also a hallmark of special education.

This book will be a great go-to source for working with students who struggle with those "playing school" activities of EF. I know that it will be referred to frequently on my bookshelf.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

FLIPP the Switch and SOARR

In my quest to further develop my understanding of Executive Function (EF) disorders, I picked up FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills by Sheri Wilkins and Carol Burmeister. My pervious posting was about an EF workbook for teens (see here). Its target audience is higher functioning teen agers who can use it with little support. This book targets people with more significant challenges. Strategies include strong visual components that would be especially useful for people with ASD. They acknowledge that many people with disorders classified under the DSM and some physical medical concerns often show weaknesses in some EF skills, such as ADHD, ASD, TBI, Intellectual Disorders, SLD, and OCD. Critically, it is important that there is a range of EF skills and although there may be patterns of strength and weakness profiles, no two people have exactly the same skill set. Furthermore it is important to recognize that just because someone is weak in a skill area, it does not mean they cannot improve it or learn to effectively deal with it.

Wilkins and Burmeister group EF disorders in five categories: flexibility, leveled emotionality, impulse control, planning and problem solving. As Sarah Ward said years ago- it is not important how many categories you use, but how you address the problems.

One strategy from the Flexibility chapter that I found particularly interesting is called SOARR. Since I cannot find reference to it on Google, I believe they created it. Although they do not reference the work of Michelle Garcia Winner in this section, it pairs nicely with her social thinking framework. It also plays well with Sarah Ward's  STOP strategy (or see my post here):
  • Space – Where am I?
  • Time – What is happening now? Later?
  • Objects – How is the room organized?
  • People – What are the facial expressions/body language of the people?
There is a large recognition in all these approaches that expected social behaviors shift according to context. Without clearly understanding context, we cannot help people develop approaches to social success.

The text provides four concrete examples of the strategy for young people to use the strategy with vignettes describing the situation that led to the need for the strategy and a simple outcome of implementation of the strategy use. Below I have included a very slightly modified example of their template and a version of how I might have used it for my son's recent flight to visit relatives on the other coast. The book has the template in a landscape orientation that would probably work better because of the possible increase in writing space.

What is the situation/ specific context?
Ordering food and eating in a restaurant- what kind of restaurant
Participating in PE class
Attending a worship service
Joining a group in a general education class
What are other people doing in this situation?
How are they behaving?
What do I need to do to fit into this context?
What questions do I need to ask and answer in my head?
What is the noise level/volume?
Does the discussion/tone/mood seem fun or serious?
Is there a leader?
What is my role in this group and where do I fit in?
If I am unsure about something is there somebody I can approach with questions?
Based on my analysis, respond appropriately,
As I am responding, pay attention to how others are responding to me.
What happened?
What did I learn?
What can I do differently next time?

Blank SOARR template from Wilkins, S. and Burmeister, C. (2015) FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, p. 49

What is the situation/ specific context?

What are other people doing in this situation?
How are they behaving?
What do I need to do to fit into this context?
What questions do I need to ask and answer in my head?

Based on my analysis, respond appropriately,
As I am responding, pay attention to how others are responding to me.
What happened?
What did I learn?
What can I do differently next time?
In line at the airport to go through security
People are standing in line, keeping their hands to themselves. Some are in groups that are a little closer together, but most groups are not talking to each other. People are using a quiet voice. When asked a question or given a direction by a uniformed person, people do what is asked of them.
People are waiting. I need to wait to move with the line. I should not talk to people I do not know unless they ask me a question. I need to use a quiet voice. If I need help there are people in uniforms I can ask questions.
Some people do not move along in their line as quickly as they can, but I keep my comments about that to myself. I wait patiently for my turn at the various spots before moving on through the terminal.
It was hard to wait patiently because not everyone moved as fast as I wanted them to. I need to have my paperwork and ID in an easy to access location so I do not hold up the line.

I think working within this framework, young people could learn to address social issues, but training in reflection, problem solving and forecasting human behavior would be an important part of an intervention. This book has me eager to read to learn more concrete strategies for helping young people learn to deal with their weaknesses in EF.