CGS Professional Development Blog
Smart but Scattered: Strengthening Executive Functioning Skills in Children and Adolescents
October 21, 2015
Presenter: Dr. Peg Dawson Ed. D. NCSP
What are Executive Skills?
‘Executive skills’ is an umbrella term for the regulation and control of cognitive processes that can assist one in problem solving, planning, and execution. Experts have a range of what they consider executive skills, but the general consensus includes:
Response inhibition: The delay of gratification.
Working Memory: the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks.
Emotional Control: Managing emotions. Incidentally, this is a skill that needs to be even MORE highly developed in students with Learning Disabilities because of the greater frequency of struggles and challenges.
Flexibility: the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles. This can be manipulated as a coping strategy for disappointment.
Sustained attention: the capacity to maintain attention.
Task Initiation: The ability to begin tasks without undue procrastination. This is one of the last and most difficult skills to acquire and gradually increases with neural development until the mid-twenties.
Planning and Prioritizing: the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task. This is quite challenging, even for neurotypical students and needs to be scaffolded and supported with children under grade 5.
Organization: the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information and materials. This can be a challenging one to work with owing to the simple fact that it is often easier not to have a system at all.
Time management: the capacity to estimate how much time it will take to stay within deadlines and complete projects. This can frequently be seen in students who have troubles with estimation in other aspects including math class.
Metacognition: the ability to self-monitor and self-assess one’s thinking. This is normally very difficult to begin to develop before fifth grade and is co-current with the pruning of synaptic connections that occur in the brain around this time (it deals with the efficiency of thought patterns within the brain as excess neural pathways as pruned back).
Goal-directed Persistence: the capacity to have a goal and see it through to completion. This is a very challenging executive skill to develop as it also involves working memory, task initiation, response inhibition, and emotional control to create and move toward a specific goal. This can difficult for some students and can be the origin of anxieties for some.
The human brain, especially the frontal lobes (where we develop logic and reasoning skills, among others) isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25. Therefore, our role, as teachers, is to act as surrogate frontal lobes for our students and explicitly teach them strategies to develop their executive functions. The old chestnut that (effective) practice makes perfect holds true here. The more deliberate training and practice given to an executive skill, the more soundly developed are the neural pathways that will allow that skill to be improved and get established.
Myelin and Executive Skills
Executive skills develop due to the myelination of the neurons in the brain. Myelin is a fatty substance that acts as an insulator, akin to the rubber sheath on an electrical cord. The further along the development of myelin, the more efficient and speedy are the transmission of signals through the brain.
ADHD and Executive Skills
Studies have shown that students with ADHD can be about 30% behind in the developing of executive skills, and this can be linked to a deficit of dopamine. Dopamine, among other things, helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. As might be extrapolated, less dopamine means less engagement (making it a bio-based motivational deficit). Students with ADHD have diminished self-regulation and without reward or intrinsic interest in the context, their work will almost always get cut short.
Assessing Executive Skills
Challenges with executive skills are more likely to be evident at home. School is an environment which is explicitly structured and guided. Most transitions and expectations are explicit and clear and so challenges may not be as evident because students are not typically given as much independence at school. Instead, families will see challenges surrounding issues such as homework, family relationships, and chores.
In the end, there are no truly comprehensive tests of executive skills. Simply by the nature of sitting a child down in a controlled environment and giving them explicit guidelines and timelines in which to complete a task, you remove the ability to assess some of the fundamental executive skills.
Initial Meetings with Parents. Things you can ask.
Among the standard menu items teachers can ask parents during initial meetings are the following:
- What chores is your child responsible for at home? (Chores give a child training in many of the executive skills and students also learn about responsibility, and grow to understand that they will have daily responsibilities that they don’t necessarily want to do but are expected to do.
- What mood is your child most often in? Are there triggers for those moods or is it her default temperament?
- Ask about the student’s sleep routine. Quite often bad sleep habits or routines are comorbid with troubles in task initiation and sustained attention.
Strategies for Managing Executive Skill Weakness
Intervention is typically based on the age of the child and the environment in which these skills are expected (they are typically non-translatable to new environments for younger/more challenged students). Foundationally the classroom is modified in ways that limit or enforce the behaviours. An example of this would be arranging classroom furniture/materials to control the movement of students through the room and to control distraction. This, however, will not translate over into general application or development of that executive skill.
Another way to support the development of executive skills is to create a reward system. Goal directed persistence might not be well developed, so an incremental, tiered reward system is preferred. As an example, a student who remembers to bring all their school supplies will receive a gold star each day, but if they remember to complete the task five days in a row, the reward is doubled. This way reinforces the idea of persistence and all the associated executive skills that accompany it.
ASD and Executive Skills
Students that are diagnosed with ASD need alternatives to high stimulus environments. The more structured the environment, the more apt they are to feel comfortable and work toward an end goal. Unstructured, open-ended activities and assignments can be overwhelming or distressing. Closed-ended tasks, scripts, and boldly explicit alternatives for the ASD student to choose from are much less challenging. Assignments should have one explicit answer, have as few alternative pathways to get to that answer as possible, and gives explicit feedback when the task is complete. When working with students with ASD, externalize your thought process and model metacognition as you show how to complete an activity or classroom task. Many of these students simply cannot fill in the blanks on how to progress through a task, especially in mathematics.
Decide what executive skill you’re concerned about. Select a recurring situation where the weakness affects behavior. Gather some baseline data.
Create clear procedures and routines that will address the particular executive skill you wish to address. Do not tell a student what needs to be done, ask them to tell you what they must do at each step of the task. Make sure you don’t overwhelm by trying to address all the developmental issues, identify and address one or two main areas of concern and work through those first.
Prompt students to reframe their self-talk. Student self-talk should address themselves by name or in the second person and be framed in the positive rather than addressing deficits. “Sally won’t forget her gym strip” vs “Don’t my gym strip”. “Sally will pay attention for fifteen minutes” vs. “I need to pay attention for fifteen minutes”.
September 29 and 30, 2016
The AAC led the work on both days and introduced a new resource that summarizes their work over the years: “What Matters Most….”.
We have a copy of this for you to look at and access.
In addition, they are updating their website to have people directly access resources:
Assessment to Support Our Vision for Student Learning
Dr. Joel Westheimer
This really struck me from this session:
One of Ella Fitzgerald’s teacher’s said, “I was Ella Fitzgerald’s English teacher, but I didn’t know she was Ella Fitzgerald.”
“Every child has something to offer the collective community. Revel in the wonder of the unquantifiable in teaching.” Joel Westheimer
Dr. Joel Westheimer, whose primary work and research is in Citizenship Education, led the Leadership Day of the conference. Throughout the day, participants also interacted with one another as we explored questions of practice regarding The Ministerial Order. In working with colleagues from all over Alberta I was reminded of the depth, knowledge and passion of educators in the province. Together, we are changing education in profound and inspiring ways. Joel’s work and talk also encouraged and validated our direction at CGS.
Joel began our session with some interesting questions:
If you think of any classroom in the world, would you know through your observations if it was situated in a country with an authoritarian regime or democracy?
Should there be something different about the classrooms of democratic countries?
Deciding what we teach our children is deciding what kind of society we want to live in.
Schools are representative of the kind of country we want to live in. Ultimately, we need to teach students how to think – to be able to sift through an overwhelming amount of information and then make decisions to act on what is learned. Thomas Jefferson determined the purpose of education as this: To educate people in order that they may learn to govern their own affairs.
This includes informed decision making through disagreement and understanding various perspectives as a healthy part of democracy.
What Schools are for in a Democratic Society
- Encourage students to ask question rather than just provide pat answers.
- Think about subject matter in substantive ways (at the heart is teaching thinking or critical thinking in a democratic society). Provide students with multiple perspectives – question the premise of the question in the first place. Competing perspectives is what makes learning so interesting and engaging.
- Take into consideration the local context – what students personal experiences and challenges are.
Joel argued that standardization marks the beginning of the end of creativity and thinking and takes away the local context where the potential for developing real meaning is met. This, in turn, removes the professional autonomy of teachers to use the judgement, creativity and freedom to make the best decisions for their students.
From research: Teachers grades are a better indicator of success in university than standardized tests.
How do we provide public assurance by other means than standardized tests?
Direct attention needs to be placed in creating a public environment for teachers to exercise professional judgement.
Teachers need to take back the conversations about the purposes of learning.
He outlined three types of citizen:
Personally responsible: This is where character education comes in; how we behave. A personally responsible citizen might contribute to the food drive, for example.
Participatory: People who participate in community affairs. They get involved and work together to get things done to make a difference in the community. This group would organize the food drive.
Social Justice Oriented: These citizens make a critical analysis of the world around them (how social change happens, how power works, how decisions are made) and they question the ‘group think’. This group would ask why people are hungry in one of the richest countries in the world.
Through relationships, teachers play a key role. School is where children and teachers are living and children spend more time with their teachers than with anyone else in their lives. A primary role of a teacher is to engage in relationships with the students to understand what they are experiencing. This is not easily measured, and not something that National Standards can measure. Some of these ‘fuzzy’ goals are creativity, critical thinking, persuasion, understanding, critique, caring and healthy relationships. Children come to us full of their own experience and understanding of school. He likened It to us writing the script for a play that has already started.
“Because we can’t measure what we care about there is the danger that we will care about what we can measure.” Joel Westheimer, PHD.
He advocated for:
Portfolio (holistic) assessment with real audiences (Ted Sizer’s work and Coalition of Effective Schools).
Time for teachers should be spent with the students rather than creating student data – ‘datafication’.
Professional dialogue with other teachers is critical.
Links, Books, Resources and Authors:
New Public Assurance – New Possibilities for Assessment – Article AAC Website
GERM- Global Educational Reform Movement
Theodore Ryland Sizer
Book: What Kind of Citizen? Educating our Children for the Common Good, Among
Why Formative Assessment Needs to Be a Priority for Every Classroom Teacher
Dr. Dylan Wiliam
Always provocative, Dylan Wilam is an avid and discerning researcher and asks each of us to be vigilant and critical of what we read and follow; to become critical consumers of educational research. He asks us to stop being ‘magpies’ and going for the ‘next shiny thing’ that presents itself in education and focus instead on what we know has the biggest impact on student learning. Regarding our work at CGS, these things are definitely at the forefront of our planning, decision making and daily practice:
- Feedback (formative assessment)
- Metacognition and Self-Regulation (Habits of Mind)
- Peer Tutoring (Collaboration)
Benefits of Raising Achievement for Students Over a Lifetime
- Improved Health
- Longer life (every extra year in school adds 1.7 years to life)
- Increased economic growth
- Lower criminal justice costs
Purposes of Education
- Personal empowerment
- Cultural Transmission- Democracy
- Preparation of Citizenship
- Preparation for the world of work (changing rapidly – the future is working together with machines)
- Engage a passion for learning
- Preparation for change
- Critical thinking must be discipline specific (subjects are different ways of thinking about the world and need to be developed in order to work in interdisciplinary ways)
- Learning to Learn – important but hard to pin down – need both content and process.
- Creativity – discipline specific as well – making novel selections from well-stocked shelves.
Living in the Struggle
When you have to work harder to learn something, as in learning from a smudged paper, you learn it better. We have to make learning hard for students in order for them to remember it. The more the struggle, the better the long-term memory.
Every time we scaffold the learning, we take away the child’s cognitive load.
Dylan’s Case Against Rubrics
Do they mean the same thing to the child as they do for the teacher? Dylan wonders why we have to tell students what bad work looks like and sees them as a thinly veiled grading system. Instead, provide samples of work to communicate standards and what constitutes quality. If you are evaluating ideas over punctuation and spelling, provide examples that haven’t been corrected in those ways.
Teacher Growth and Quality
In today’s session, Dylan focused our attention on the idea that improving teacher quality will improve student achievement. Again, work we are doing at CGS was validated in our Professional Development journey:
- Job embedded
- Practice focused
Teaching is too complex to evaluate. In addition, strong teachers build student achievement for three years and accomplish in six months what less effective teachers take two years to teach. We build on the foundation of previous teachers. The only thing we know for sure is that we can get better. Improvement over evaluation is the goal.
We need people in the profession who believe human beings come first over their intelligence, grades going into teaching, or their passion for a subject.
Becoming an expert in teaching is like learning to ride a bike. Practice. Automating basic routines.
Raising teaching quality closes the achievement gap and destroys the Bell Curve (what nature gives us and is representative of IQ).
If you accomplish the first list, you have improvement for a class for a year. If you accomplish the second list, improvements for years to come for all kids. This is about building capacity through habit changing.
Help teachers take risks:
- Normalize risk taking
- Team teach to share the risk
- Praise for taking the risk rather than the result of the risk.
Create Learning Communities:
- Membership is restricted to those still teaching
- Meet once a month – how long it takes to try something new
- Structure meetings the same every time so focus is on learning
- Feedback – here is what tried and how it went
- No experts in the group – all are equals in a supportive learning environment – helping one another get better (like AA)
- Leaders need to take things off of teachers plates so that there is time to work on new habits.
- Setbacks –find out what happened and learn from it
- Engage in the resistance: If someone says, “This won’t work,” it’s a good thing because they have thought about making it work.
Formative Assessment at the Heart is:
- Pedagogical Engagement
- Pedagogical Responsiveness
From the research: The only thing that matters with feedback is what the child does with it. Not when. Not how. Know your students – when to push and when to back off. Only one test of feedback – if it is getting you more of what you want from your students, it is good feedback. The best feedback causes students to think.
Some Classroom Ideas:
No hands up (except for questions) or you only get to know what a few, confident learners know. All students always ready. When people are wrong and then are corrected, they will remember it longer and the more certain you are that you are right, the longer you will remember it.
Students choose their response publically – seeing if we are right is motivating.
Collect the smallest amount of information you need to decide what you need to do next. He calls this ‘Decision Driven Data Collection’. Quick checks for understanding.
Detective Work: Five of these are wrong. You find the errors.
Match the feedback to the essays.
Cooperative Learning: To be successful needs group goals and individual accountability. Everyone gets the mark of the lowest achiever.
Peer Editing: Mark peer work based on criteria, then if handed in to the teacher sub-par, the editor is the person the teacher works with.
Anchor self-assessment in understanding. Use plus-minus-interesting to describe thinking.
Never give feedback to your students unless you can offer time in class for students to respond to it. If it is important enough to mention, it is important enough to allow students to work with it.
Multiple choice questions (not for tests) are a good choice for gathering data. Who is getting it? Who is not? What will I do about it? He suggests using them where the answer choices include: a misconception, a distractor, question stem, solution. Use exit slips to help create a multiple choice starter for the next lesson.
The Value of Re-visiting Texts and Reading for Information: (Lori Jamison Rog)
Book Resource: “Struggling Readers: Why band-aids don’t stick and worksheets don’t work” (Supporting students in grades 3-9)
- Targeting texts for small group instruction: Choose “tiptoe” texts that are just a bit challenging for readers, short enough to be completed in one sitting and then re-visited over subsequent sessions. Re-visiting texts works best over a three-day lesson cycle: 1. Introduce the text and students read independently, 2. Do a closer reading of the text focusing on interpreting content, building metacognition and reading critically, 3. Skim, scan, closely re-read with a focus on vocabulary, word-solving, fluency and writer’s craft. NOTE: There should be a must-do task associated with each day’s reading.
- Text introduction (aka Prereading): Preview the text, Activate prior knowledge, Set a purpose for reading (as brief as possible, approximately 20-minute session, share necessary background knowledge or intention of the reading)
- Comprehension strategies: Struggling readers need to be taught what good readers do (Think Aloud/I Wonder, Questioning/Inferring, Think-Pair-Share/Synthesizing). Plan a follow-up task (After students have been reading independently, have a must-do task prepared to have students practice a strategy further, reinforce a new concept or extend the text experience.)
- Reading non-fiction: Struggling readers need to read for information (WITIK folders, Map the Page)
- Exposure to everyday text: Struggling readers need to read the world (websites, schedules, instructions, flyers, maps, brochures)
Hosting Effective Writing Conferences: (Matthew Glover)
- Conference format and classroom organization: Individual student writer’s conferences should only last 5-10 minutes. When each conference is over, the expectation is that the student goes away to work on the teaching point just discussed with the teacher. While conferences are happening, other students must have a focused task to do with the understanding that they are not to interrupt unless of emergency.
- Track key elements of each conference: Using a chart for each individual student, make notes on a strength in the writing, the teaching point of your conference, a future goal for this student’s writing (for example, what you noticed in their writing that you would like to teach next time). In order for the conference to be effective, it is very important to choose ONLY ONE teaching point per session.