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.

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