Executive function is like the CEO of the brain. It’s in charge of making sure things get done from the planning stages of the job to the final deadline. When learners have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge. EF weaknesses are very common, can stand alone or partner with another formal diagnosis, and can be treated using consistent, strategic and systematic approaches across all environments.
There are several key skills involved in Executive Functioning, your learner may not struggle with all of them to the same degree. Executive skills include:
Metacognitionis the ability to think about thinking. Learners who have trouble with metacognition:
struggles to differentiate what he knows and what he doesn’t know about a topic as he learns
does not study for assessments, complete challenging assignments, or comprehend new learning material easily
Impulse Controlis the ability to stop and think before acting. Learners who have trouble with impulse control:
may blurt things out
do unsafe things without thinking it through
are likely to rush through homework without checking it
may quit a chore halfway through to go hang out with friends
Emotional Controlis the ability to manage her feelings by focusing on the end result or goal. Emotional control and impulse control are closely related. Learners who struggle with emotional control:
often have trouble accepting negative feedback
may overreact to little injustices
may struggle to finish a task when something upsets them
Flexibility is the ability to roll with the punches and come up with new approaches when a plan fails. Learners who are inflexible:
think in very concrete ways
don’t see other options or solutions
find it difficult to change course
may get panicky and frustrated when they’re asked to do so
Working Memory is the ability to hold information in her mind and use it to complete a task. Learners who have weak working memory skills:
have trouble with multi-step tasks
have a hard time remembering directions, taking notes or understanding something you’ve just explained to them
frequently may say, “I forgot what I was going to say.”
Self-Monitoring is the ability to keep track of and evaluate her performance on regular tasks.
Learners who have trouble self-monitoring:
can’t tell if their strategies are working
may not even realize they have strategies
often don’t know how to check their work
Planning and Prioritizing is the ability to come up with the steps needed to reach a goal and to decide their order of importance. Learners with weak planning and prioritizing skills:
may not know how to start planning a project
may be easily overwhelmed trying to break tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks
may have trouble seeing the main idea
Task Initiation is the ability to get started on something. Learners who struggle with initiation:
often have issues with planning and prioritizing too. Without having a plan for a task, it’s hard to know how to start.
can come across as lazy or as simply procrastinating
often they’re just so overwhelmed they freeze and do nothing
Organization is the ability to keep track of information and things. Learners with organizational issues:
are constantly losing or misplacing things
can’t find a way to get organized even when there are negative consequences to being disorganized
Can Executive Functioning skills be improved?
Absolutely! By explicitly teaching and practicing EF skills, we ensure that all learners have the strong foundation they need to be successful in and outside of the classroom. The idea is that we can train our brains to improve basic skills like organization and self-control. Kids and young adults can also learn valuable compensatory strategies to help them through their struggles with staying organized, paying attention, and persevering through challenges. Not only does this give learners immediate short-term benefits, but gives support in the long-term as well. Below are some simple, but effective, strategies in teaching and practicing executive functioning skills:
Changes in environment- noise level, visual reminders, eating
Changes in interactions- specific direction, encouragement, immediate feedback
Teaching specific skills- goals, coaching, plan-do-review (PDR)
Classroom wide interventions- routines, small groups
Reading is one of the most rewarding, yet can be one of the most challenging skills to develop, strengthen and apply as a learner. The ability to access written language opens so many doors, and has proven to be one of the key basic human rights throughout history. Here we discuss the first four steps in the reading ladder, in order, that must be in place in order for a reader to feel and see success as they progress. Each component sub-skill builds on the other in order for learners to discover the world of reading possibilities!
Solidify Underlying Sensory-Cognitive Foundations
Reading requires foundational principles such as phonemic awareness, sound/symbol correlations and symbol imagery are in place. By definition, phonemic awareness is the brain’s ability to identify the number, order and type of sounds within a word, while symbol imagery is your brain’s ability to create a picture of the letters/patterns that correspond. A learner might be able to tell you that “cat” has three sounds, but yet struggles to picture the letters to match those sounds in their mind. Weaknesses in either of these areas can dramatically impact a reader’s ability to sound out new words and recognize sight words in isolation as well as in context.
Quick Tips and Tricks:
Ask your learner how many sounds a word has and tap out the sounds
Gauge if your child can “picture the letters for (insert word)” and then ask he/she to airwrite the letters with their finger, watching their finger write and saying the letter names as they do so.
Use tactile materials like shaving cream, sand or sandpaper to add an element of fun and to strengthen sensory integration.
Apply Underlying Skills to Decoding, Sight Word Recognition, and Encoding
The next step in the reading ladder involves sight words and spelling patterns. Depending on the age and grade, oftentimes, sight words are not phonetic and, thus, cannot be sounded out. Therefore, a learner must be able to use the blackboard of their brain to picture, then recall the sight words with automaticity. After seeing the word enough times in isolation, learners are then ready to apply this recognition into reading the words in paragraphs and retrieving the patterns for spelling purposes.
Quick Tips and Tricks:
You can easily practice sight words with games- tic tac to, I spy, sight word memory- to name a few. For more ideas, feel free to explore sightwords.com!
Spelling requires repetition and can be daunting. As a parent myself, I tend to practice them first by asking my kiddos to airwrite them, then by letting them write their words on a mirror or a window with whiteboard markers. Of course, we still want to use sensory language (“What letters do you see for…?”) and materials (chalk, sand, etc.) to reinforce their imagery for each spelling word!
Strengthen Paragraph Reading to Build Stamina, Prosody, and Fluency
At first, reading can be choppy and belaboring. Emerging readers work best when we introduce them to phrases, sentences and then short paragraphs so that they can feel success each step of the way and build stamina as they go. It is helpful to encourage readers to use their finger or a notecard as a tracking device as well to help focus their attention on the line at hand to isolate any potential errors. When an error occurs, wait until the reader has completed the sentence, then read the sentence or a phrase with the error within so that the learner can discover his/her mistake. This takes the pressure off and allows for more receptivity to feedback.
Quick Tips and Tricks:
Use Leveled Reading passages (without naming the level, color-coding works well) and increase the density and the complexity when they appear ready to take on a new challenge.
Scan the paragraph beforehand to decode unknown or tricky words.
Cover the bulk of a passage if density is intimidating or create a window card to highlight a single word or phrase.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
The practice effect is imperative for learners to be able to reach a level of independence while reading. Please keep in mind that just because a learner can access reading materials, it does not mean that they can understand what they are reading and make connections thereafter. We will address the fifth step in the reading ladder – reading comprehension, language processing and critical thinking skills – in a future blog, so that learners can not only learn to read, but read to learn. Stay tuned!
Quick Tips and Tricks:
It is just as important that readers practice using their newly acquired skills with materials that are at or even below their current reading level. This way, they can feel more confident and continue to progress efficiently!
Take turns reading to model prosody, rate and comprehension strategies.
Practice when your learner is most comfortable and engaged to increase positive associations and build confidence.
“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence. This is something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love most.”
In 1988, Dr. Dweck first presented a profound research-based model, “A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality,” to show the impact of mindsets. She showed how a person’s mindset sets the stage for performance and learning goals. A learner with a performance goal might avoid perceived challenges because he/she is worried about looking smart all of the time. In contrast, a student with a learning goal will pursue interesting and challenging tasks in order to learn more.In 1988, Dr. Dweck first presented a profound research-based model, “A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality,” to show the impact of mindsets. She showed how a person’s mindset sets the stage for performance and learning goals. A learner with a performance goal might avoid perceived challenges because he/she is worried about looking smart all of the time. In contrast, a student with a learning goal will pursue interesting and challenging tasks in order to learn more.
In Mindset, Dr. Dweck further explains that “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” According to her research, a growth mindset is what motivates you to put in that effort. It’s what makes you dig deep to get through the difficulties of learning something new. When you believe you’re capable of growing and overcoming obstacles—and that the process can make you smarter, stronger, or better—you feel a lot more motivation to put in the hours of difficult work that will actually get you there.
You’re striving for something that you know you can achieve, so you’re at peace with the struggle, but when you’re stuck in a fixed mindset, you’re exactly that: stuck. This model of the fixed vs. growth mindset shows how cognitive, affective, and behavioral features are linked to one’s beliefs about the malleability of their intelligence.
Key Steps to Teaching Growth Mindset
Model it yourself! Learners follow their parents’ and educators’ lead, so by showing examples of yourself having a growth mindset (or working your way out of a fixed mindset), it will help children feel safe and empowered to do the same.
Utilize imagery and analogies to make it relatable. Helping learners “see” how growth mindsets can shape outcomes will increase connectivity and confidence.
Help learners discover the significance of mistakes as a key part of their learning journey. Failures are stepping stones to success, without them, learners can never truly reach their full potential.
Reinforce that change takes time just like learning how to read or walk. Oftentimes, change needs constant repetition before it becomes automatic. It is helpful to stress the importance of flexibility and grace while children are learning how to apply Dweck’s theory.
Dr. Dweck’s studies continue to find that people’s perceptions about their own intelligence have a significant impact on their motivation, effort and willingness to challenge themselves. Those who believe their abilities are changeable are more likely to embrace challenges and persist despite failure. Ultimately, if you can’t grow, if you can’t learn, if you can’t change, why would you bother trying? You don’t think you can do it, and failure would just confirm it. Helping learners see failure as a valuable part of the learning process, are more likely to take risks and achieve success by doing so. To learn more about Stanford University’s Dr. Carol Dweck’s invaluable work, feel free to watch her world renown TED talk, “The power of believing you can improve,” review Education Week’s article, “Carol Dweck on Nurturing Students’ Growth Mindsets Through Protest and Pandemic” as well as read Riskology’s article about the science behind growth mindsets.
New Year, New Goals
It is a new year, the perfect time to envision and achieve new goals! As you can imagine, January presents the ideal time to set short and long term as we embrace the new year ahead! By definition, goals are successive approximations or baby steps, that help provide motivation to achieve what is important in life. Setting realistic goals allows our learners to feel successful and start to establish positive habits. When doing so, it is critical to write short and long-term goals out as small steps to larger goals and to post goals in a location where all members can view them on a daily basis. A fun way to explore goal setting is to do so as a family or as a class community. Eventually, learners can take it beyond the family and classroom, but starting this way allows children to feel like they are in a partnership. Sharing responsibility and ownership ultimately helps to increase personal confidence in setting goals in the future!
Five Steps to Goal Setting
As parents ourselves, we realize that setting and seeing goals through can be challenging, so, we utilize the SMART goal formula to provide structure and hold us accountable:
What do you, your child or your student want to achieve? You must help guide your learner to be as detailed as possible when establishing both short and long term goals. Watch for any roadblocks that could keep them from reaching their goals, and make a plan to get around them. If you are not specific, then you cannot achieve the other attributes of effective goal setting.
Make Goals Measurable
If you know your child’s ultimate goal is to learn all of his/her multiplication facts by the spring, that means your learner has to practice at least 4-5 days a week for 10-20 minutes a day in a variety of ways. Break the goal into bite-sized chunks. Give yourself daily, weekly and monthly steps and maintain focus on those. When your child accomplishes one, then tackle the next one with enthusiasm!
Timing is Everything
Set a reasonable time limit—because you need a finish line. Take that goal of your learner’s, create a plan, and break it all the way down to daily activities. Then, give yourself a deadline. Hint: Planners like the Erin Condren’s Life Planners are perfect for this. They’ll help you manage your schedule, grow as an individual or collective, and crush your goals—no matter what they are.
For example, learners might say, “I want to read all of the Magic Treehouse books by December 31.” To do so, calculate aspects like how many books you must read in a month, how many pages you need to read each week and how many pages you need to read in a day. Then do what you can to hit that goal by your target date.
Keep it Real
Let’s be honest—trying to accomplish someone else’s goals for your life never works out. Sure, parents and teachers might want learners to strengthen certain cognitive skills or learn how to use specific social-emotional tools, but it won’t happen unless it’s the learner’s desire too, striving to win needs to come from within. It’s tough and your learners will not have the drive to stick with it if they are working toward a goal they are not even passionate about.
This also means that goals must be realistic and achievable. If your child or student wants to read the Harry Potter series, but is not yet reading Learn to Read books, then we, as a community, must approach the desire with positivity and manage expectations. Every goal is attainable, as long as we are building in the appropriate sub-goals and setting a rationale timeline!
Seeing is Believing
Something special happens when you write down specific goals and post them in plain sight. Write out your main goals as well as the steps it will take for you to achieve the bigger goals. Dave Ramsey’s Goal Tracker Worksheet is a handy tool for this. Also, if it makes it easier to discuss as a class or family, you can also use this handy worksheet. Seeing your goals in will help you hold yourself, your learner or your class accountable and track your progress along the way together!
We explore a sample goal below that, of course, can be modified to meet your family or class’ needs.
Purpose: Systematize work spaces in the home/classroom to provide clarity and to eliminate unnecessary stress as well as visual noise, helping learners feel in control and empowered.
Design a shared visual daily/weekly calendar to provide reliable structure
Organize work spaces together at the end of each day to eliminate clutter and model organization skills and reorganize on the weekends at home or Fridays at school if something goes amiss
Create an easily accessible list of at least 10 brain/movement breaks and/or chores to access during “free” time to increase independence
Goal-setting and progress monitoring are key components to developing GRIT (guts, resilience, initiative, and tenacity) and a growth mindset (a topic we will discuss further in an upcoming blog!). Even though it is difficult not to let your learner get discouraged if he or she gets off track, it is important to see through the goals no matter what. Life happens. Remember 2020 and all the “surprises” it had? We all hit speed bumps and roadblocks along the way—pandemic or not and, honestly, that’s more than okay, it’s ideal! As long as we encourage our learners to stay focused on the end goal and keep taking small steps toward getting there, you’ll be on your way to a big life-change. 2021, here we come!
Want to Learn More?
If you would like to read more, below are some additional external resources on Goal Setting:
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