May 17, 2019

Executive Functioning and Your Student: What You Can Do to Maximize Success in the Classroom and Beyond

As a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I often receive referrals from families and teachers because they are concerned about their students’ “language processing” skills. I’ve noted though, as they explain what they are observing in the home and/or in the classroom, they may say things like the following:

“Johnny just can’t get anything done without constant reminders.”
 

“Shelly can’t recall or tell me a story in the right order.”
 

“I need to help Steven get started on a lot of independent work tasks.”

 

“Violet struggles with keeping track of the needed materials for school subjects, and takes a lot longer than her peers to finish her work.”

A family learning at the kitchen table_.jpg

 

While these concerns may definitely indicate a problem with language skill development, these concerns may also indicate a problem with the student’s executive functioning skills.
 

Executive function is the phrase that describes a set of mental processes that help us connect past experience with present action, and can be viewed as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills. We use these skills to plan, organize, pay attention, and remember details while managing time and space. Executive function helps us plan and organize a trip, research a topic for school, set and self-monitor our goals, and initiate and complete complex tasks successfully.
 

Most children can experience difficulty in planning, organization, and follow-through in some area or time in their lives. Children with other diagnoses or learning difficulties, such as brain injury, ADHD, autism, mental health difficulties, trauma, communication disorders, or other learning disabilities, may need additional help. Learning how to develop and strengthen executive functioning skills will support the student’s success during their school and employment years.

 

What can parents do to help a student or child who struggles with executive functions?

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has prepared an excellent resource titled, “Executive Function 101.” Some of the following tips and strategies can be found in their handout.

 

The Colorado Department of Education's Heather Hotchkiss, Kate Loving, and Brooke Carson have great information regarding building executive functioning skills. Some of their tips for children are listed below:

 

Organizing and Prioritizing:

  • Organize tasks by thinking of a long-term project as a ”mental movie” to break down complex tasks into more manageable chunks. Use a white board or sheet of paper to map tasks into flowcharts.
  • Write down important tasks in a calendar, and allocate time accordingly. Estimate the amount of time each task will take, and track the time while spent working. Make lists of assignments or chores, and let them experience the satisfaction of checking off tasks as they’re completed.
  • Store materials in an organized workspace helps with finding the materials needed for homework easily and independently. Keep reference materials such as calculators, maps, or the computer near the workspace to complete work independently.
  • Identify a regular time during the week to clear out/organize their backpack. Work together and make it a pleasant experience, so it becomes a habit.
  • Prioritize homework tasks based on due dates, difficulty level, or the stress they have about the task. Encourage students to list the steps needed to complete long-term projects, and help them sequence tasks logically.
  • Review homework and gather materials before starting work so everything is collected before they start working. Store the most commonly used items within easy reach in accessible locations.
     

Shifting/Thinking Flexibly

  • Activities that involve multiple-meaning words, word categories, and number puzzles can build a child’s flexible approach to language and number from the preschool years onward.
  • Visualize and discuss jokes, riddles, puns, and multiple-meaning words helps children recognize that ambiguities in language can affect meaning and reinforces the importance of using context clues when reading.
  • When your child comes across words or sentences they don’t understand while reading, encourage them to stop reading and ask key questions such as: Is there a word or phrase that could have more than one meaning? Can I emphasize different parts of the sentence to change its meaning?
  • Try solving math problems using multiple rather than only one way. Show them how to look for alternative approaches, which may be more efficient. Ask questions: Do I know more than one way to solve the problem? Does this look similar to anything I’ve seen before? Is this problem the same or different from the last problem?
  • If your child gets “stuck” on a writing task, encourage the use of strategies to organize and prioritize the information. Some tools that can assist in this are graphic organizers to help children shift between the main ideas and supporting details, and a three-column note-taking system to record major themes, concepts, or questions in the first column, relevant details in the second column, and a memory strategy (such as a picture) in the third column.


Working Memory

  • Know your child’s weaknesses, but play to their strengths. If your child has strong visual-spatial skills, try taking information from a math word problem and inserting it into a visual diagram. Use Legos or blocks to complete addition/subtraction problems.
  • Help compensate for a weakness. Break up/chunk information as this takes up fewer slots in working memory. It may be helpful to give one or two instructions rather than a long string of instructions. If the student’s auditory working memory is weaker, don’t expect them to depend on memory for important things.
  • Reinforce what works. Help your child identify strategies that work well in certain situations.
  • Discourage multi-tasking. Encourage your child to focus on one thing at a time, and shift between activities. Do one activity, and then stop and shift to the next, come back to the first activity, etc. This can help prevent the child from being overwhelmed by a lot of thoughts at once.

 

Self-monitoring/Self-checking

  • Self-talk promotes reflection and a greater awareness of one’s learning and performing process. Encourage your child to think out loud. Model this behavior by talking through your own checklists, reviewing and revising plans, and discussing how to avoid errors. To help your children self-monitor their schoolwork, try the following strategies:

 

Reading Comprehension

  • Read single sentences/small chunks of texts and then check for understanding.
  • Discuss the characters, language use and connections between themes and details in the text

Writing

  • Review assignments, and the outcomes of those assignments to track progress.
  • Review their most common errors, and create a personalized checklist of the errors.
  • Suggest using different colored pens when shifting from the role of writer to self-editor.
  • Encourage checking sentence structure and grammar by reading aloud or using text-to speech technology.

Math

  • Check their work for accuracy by checking against an estimate, using the reverse operation, using a calculator, etc.
  • Create a personalized checklist by identifying past errors on texts/quizzes. For example: Have I checked the signs? Have I solved all parts of the problem?

Homework

  • Use silly phrases or songs as reminders to pack necessary books/folders in their backpack when leaving school or when leaving home in the morning.
  • Give finished homework a once-over review to learn the habit of self-checking.
  • Keep a clock nearby to monitor the time spent on each assignment.


Additional Strategies to Develop Executive Functioning Skills

Time management skills support the ability to see and sense the passage of time

  • Create a working clock. Draw how much time the child has to work on a clock with a dry erase marker. For example, 20 minutes to clean his/her room, shading in a 20-minute time span.
  • Use time markers. Start/stop time, and midpoint for a check-in for longer projects/tasks
     

Creating future thinkers

Get ready, do, and done

  • Done: What will it/I look like?
  • Do: What do I need to do?
  • Get ready: What materials will I need?
  • Get ready: Gather required materials
  • Do: Create time markers or checkpoints for start, finish, halfway point
  • Done: Stop and review. Am I done? Do I need to change my plan?
     

Job Talk: Turn the action into a job and name the child their “job title.” This helps the child access their procedural memory (tasks steps and actions), limits emotional reactions when given a task, and helps them develop their nonverbal working memory.

  • Reader: Reads aloud
  • Summarizer: Sums up the events for the group
  • Mathematician: Helps solve the math problem
  • Detective: Find main ideas or investigate new words
  • Psychologist: How is the character in the reading feeling, and why?
  • Table setter: Sets the table for dinner, gathers additional materials needed (condiments, kitchen utensils, etc.)
  • Counter wiper: Wipes the table down after a meal, helps with dishwashing, etc.


Academic success in our 21st-century schools has been increasingly linked with children’s mastery of a wide range of skills that directly rely on their executive function skills. Helping children learn to be successful in using their executive function skills will set them up for a successful academic career and employment experience!


References


Heather Hotchkiss, Kate Loving, and Brooke Carson, Colorado Department of Education, (2019). Building Executive Function Skills. Retrieved from https://www.cde.state.co.us/

 

National Center for Learning Disabilities, (2019). Executive Function 101. Retrieved from https://www.ncld.org/

 

Kimberly Peters, Western Washington University, (2019). Hierarchy of Social/Pragmatic Skills as Related to the Development of Executive Function. Retrieved from https://www.wwu.edu/

Lindsey Volkers is a speech-language pathologist at Grant Wood Area Education Agency.