Almost every time we meet with a family to discuss their learner’s Executive Functioning profile, we are asked this question. So what is working memory anyway? As a parent and educator myself, I would love to provide insight into working memory and how it impacts learning throughout our lifespan!
First, let’s define it!
Working memory is one of the three overarching component sub skills of Executive Functioning. Simply put, working memory is your brain’s ability to temporarily store information (think placeholder or sticky note) for a number of seconds in order to focus your attention on manipulating that same information for another use. Working memory is a cognitive skill that is important for reasoning and the guidance of decision making and behavior. Struggling to calculate math mentally, visualize letters while spelling, follow multi-step directions, and self-check one’s work are just a few examples of how weak working memory can present and prevent one from reaching their learning potential.
Working Memory and Learning
Emerging readers and mathematicians are required to activate their working memory many times a day in and out of the classroom. Whether it is recognizing a word pattern, vowel sound, number, operation – whatever the sensory (visual, auditory, tactile) input is, our learners must tap into their working memory and make connections to information stored in their long-term memory almost immediately upon receiving the input. Visual and verbal working memory join forces to allow learners to fully process the communicative world around them.
Learners who struggle with language processing skills and sustained attention, find it difficult to “keep things in mind” which is another way of saying utilize their working memory. According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Approximately 10% of us have weak working memory; however, the estimates of the percentage of weak working memory in students with specific learning disorders, including dyslexia, ranges from 20 to 50 percent. Weak working memory is a core difficulty for students with ADHD, Inattentive Type.” This is primarily due to the fact that information must pass through their prefrontal cortex, where our Executive Functioning skills such as attention and regulation are housed, before it can reach the areas in the brain that they need to fully access information. So, if the front of their brain is unable to perform, then it serves as a block to the rest of the brain.
Working Memory and Anxiety
Anxiety can impact one’s working memory skills as well. I like to refer to this as the “stress fog effect” – the anxiety and stress that learners experience is a double whammy because not only are their brains wired differently to start, they also have to discover methods to prevent their increase in anxiety from gating the rest of the pathways in their brain from functioning.
Strategies to Improve Working Memory
Although there is no easy fix here, educators and caregivers can explicitly teach strategies to support learners discover how they learn best (metacognitively). Examples include learning how to: bullet point notes, jot thoughts down on sticky notes within text, maximize various checklists, use airwriting as a technique to learn math facts and word patterns, chunk information into sections and assignments into manageable parts, and list the steps for more complex tasks to execute – to name a few! We recognize that working memory is a somewhat abstract concept, so please reach out if you are curious to learn more or have a question about a specific learner/strategy!
Math. Social Studies. Science. There’s no shortage of important topics the U.S. education system imparts on our youth.
And yet, there is a set of skills that’s not given enough attention in the classroom: Executive Functioning.
Executive Functioning is the management system of the brain — it refers to how well students pay attention, organize and prioritize, stay focused on tasks through completion, regulate their emotions, and keep track of the things they are doing. While Executive Functioning is starting to gain some deserved attention in the classroom, parents can have a huge impact on the growth of these skills for their children.
In this piece, we’ll look at why Executive Functioning has been historically overlooked in our education system and how parents can help their children learn these skills.
How Did We Get Here? Why Executive Functioning is Overlooked
The U.S. public education system has always been focused on results. Results in the form of grades, standardized test scores, and student performance. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001, schools that did not consistently meet federal standards for proficiencies could face funding cuts. The Every Student Succeeds Act, ushered in by President Obama, largely transferred the accountability of these assessments from the federal to the state level.
Under both laws, however, the incentive for schools is to ensure students are meeting state or federal proficiency standards. That’s why many curriculums — understandably so — have been geared toward achieving certain benchmarks for each grade level.
That works to some degree for certain subjects. There are many subjects where knowledge and competency can be tested and measured. But a student’s Executive Functioning is much harder to determine: how can you say whether a student is able to prioritize projects or budget their time at a satisfactory level? How do you track how they’ve improved their emotional regulation? Or their time budgeting capabilities or ability to pay attention?
Executive Functioning has not been given the commitment of resources as other subjects in our education system. That’s due to extensive, grade-level federal and state assessments, often which are tied to funding. But that’s been exacerbated because Executive Functioning is also much more difficult for schools to evaluate and measure.
Beyond testing and assessment, there’s an additional, simpler reason that explains why Executive Functioning hasn’t been a priority: lack of awareness. The skills have only in recent years become labeled under the umbrella of “Executive Functioning.” For decades, these skills did not have a name in the classroom. And if you don’t have a label for a group of skills, it’s hard to begin to address student shortcomings in a structured, standardized way.
Why Do Some Children Lack Executive Functioning Skills?
If you were asked what you did this morning, you wouldn’t describe how you brushed your teeth, ate breakfast, and left the house on time. Those are things that you do without thinking; things that are a given.
And yet, many children are unable to get out the door on time. They could be easily distracted when they eat breakfast, or forget to brush their teeth, or be late leaving for school.
That’s due to prefrontal lobe development, key to executive decision making, which has the ability to grow until a person is 25 years of age. Simply put, a child’s brain is not fully developed in this area. The best way to accelerate that development and facilitate positive Executive Functioning is to provide consistency. If your child is a visual learner, you may want to write out their morning schedule which they can reference on a daily basis to help them remember tasks and their timing, for example.
An additional way to build strong habits is to leverage positive reinforcement. It may be tempting to do certain tasks for a child such as throwing out their trash or clearing their dishes. Instead, look for the ways that truly motivate your child — perhaps it is a small monetary reward or time to play a video game. Or simply provide positive verbal praise and affirmations. Provide these types of rewards for when they complete these tasks; that way the task will become a habit. Are there going to be times when you are too exhausted and not willing to fight a battle with your child? Of course. Building these habits may never be perfect: but keep the big picture in perspective.
What Can Parents Do About Improving these Skills?
I can already hear you saying: I struggle with building routines on my own and holding myself accountable, how am I going to teach my children these skills? Trust me, I can absolutely relate!
First off — and this is key — give yourself some grace! Know that you will not adhere precisely to the routine every day. But do try to stay consistent: If a child has a chore to take out the trash every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., you may want to create a visual calendar with their name next to it. Then provide positive reinforcement — through whatever motivates them — until that chore becomes a habit. If you struggle with staying organized and completing tasks, try to build routines and reminders that will keep you consistent as well.
Parents should also collaborate with their child’s teachers about issues that they see at home, get input on how the student acts in the classroom, and develop an action plan based on these insights.
Lastly, parents should turn to online resources like Understood.org which has a plethora of helpful advice on how to build healthy habits and cultivate Executive Functioning skills. In addition, tap your network: you’d be surprised how many other fellow parents might be dealing with similar issues with their children — and may have helpful tips, too.
Harnessing and Emphasizing Student Strengths
Just as it’s important to build a routine for your child, that doesn’t mean you should remove their passions which seem less relevant to improving their Executive Functioning. If your child loves playing sports, that’s great — but build that play time into a structure!
Many parents of ADHD children know they may struggle with Executive Functioning. And their children also have many positive traits: their creativity, their spontaneity, and their resilience. Use these traits to help build Executive Functioning: Let children create their own morning schedule. Encourage them to be resilient even when they have difficulty following their routines. Let them be spontaneous and leave them free time, as long as it has parameters and doesn’t impact other routines.
You don’t want to limit your child’s passions, but fit them into a larger structure so they can build these important skills. All the while, make sure to positively reinforce behaviors that should be encouraged.
Up to 90% of students diagnosed with ADHD also struggle with Executive Functioning and it can impact them in some capacity through their academic and professional careers. In the Covid era, there’s never been a better time for parents and schools to prioritize Executive Functioning skills.
After all, while a child may not use long division much past high school, they will absolutely rely on their Executive Functioning skills every day of their life.
My son has always been a good student. Teacher feedback over the years has been consistent: “He’s a delight in the classroom! He’s attentive, participates and loves to learn!” He even gets straight A’s most of the time – but he has always struggled in school. Every year, he has struggled with completing assignments on time, test taking and reading comprehension. He’s always tested very poorly, not because he doesn’t know the answers or material, but because he runs out of time on every test. It takes him three hours to do homework at night, when his teacher says it should take him 30 minutes. I recall one teacher telling us, “It’s not like he isn’t paying attention, when I tell the students to start the assignment or test, your son sits and stares at the paper and his pencil for a long time before eventually starting.” What the teacher didn’t tell me then — but what I know now — is that my son has executive function challenges.
“Executive Functioning skills” isn’t a term I knew before digging into my son’s struggles in the classroom. The term “Executive Functioning” or “EF” has been around since the 1970s (prefrontal cortex and all that) and it’s basically defined as the skills needed to perform daily tasks. It includes skills like paying attention, organizing, planning, starting tasks, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. The importance of its role in academics has gained support in recent years. Interventions targeting executive function skills, in fact, have skyrocketed in recent years.
Most recently, there’s quite a bit of discussion in educational communities around the impacts of the pandemic on executive function development. As learners have been at home, it may be easier for students to manage time without having to make the trip to school — but may have stunted learning of EF skills as well. While all learners and situations are different, below are a few common signs of executive functioning weaknesses.
Difficulty starting or completing tasks
Inability to organize or plan for future events
Trouble with listening or paying attention
Difficulty solving problems
Challenged by learning or processing new information
Inability to control emotions or impulses
Trouble with completing tasks in a timely manner
These symptoms can lead to poor performance at school or work, low self-esteem, lack of engagement and motivation, and avoidance of taking on tasks and/or responsibilities. The good news is that there are very practical strategies and readily available tools/games that can help with these everyday challenges. Strategies like bedtime checklists, goals calendars, and board games that can help strengthen EF skills (and are fun for kids).
Professional expertise can also be helpful, especially when executive functioning weaknesses significantly impact your child’s self-esteem or creates anxiety. Experts generally recommend a range of strategies including occupational, speech or mental health specialists. Now that my son is a teenager, I find it a bit harder for me to work with him on these particular struggles (as you see here, I talk to a lot of hands). Sometimes it is helpful to have an outside person or coach in their life to provide frequent check-ins, real-time guidance, and mentoring to increase the efficacy of strategy building. Sure, parents can absolutely tackle aspects of EF. But having someone else who is trained and skilled and can be the bridge from learner to home and school application is HUGE.
“When we can imagine someone else’s experiences or feelings as different than our own, and understand that they are no less important- we learn to sympathize and empathize.”
-Michelle Garcia Winner
In this month’s Educator Spotlight, we celebrate and honor Michelle Garcia Winner as she has brought so much joy and empathy into our lives as educators, learners, parents and the like. The Social Thinking® and ZONES of Regulation® practices are top tier, our learners’ lives would certainly not be the same without the programs that she has created to improve their lives in the short and long term. According to socialthinking.com, “Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP specializes in the treatment of individuals with social learning challenges and is the founder and CEO of Social Thinking®, a company dedicated to helping individuals from four through adulthood develop their social competencies to meet their personal social goals.” Winner has made strides in building several social-emotional learning curriculums and, thus, drastically impacting learners’ lives for good. Here, we will provide an overview for the core methodologies Winner and her team have developed to give insight into the efficacy and need for social thinking strategies in and out of the classroom.
Zones of Regulation
ZOR® is a cognitive-based, self-regulatory framework for students with challenges in sensory processing and integration. Through building self-awareness of the student’s internal state, this methodology helps them better navigate social situations and foster better relationships by breaking down complex social norms into smaller, more understandable parts. Using the latest research, Zones encourages students to utilize a variety of tools and strategies that explore mindfulness, movement, sensory integration, wellness and more to create a systematic approach to teaching skills in executive functioning, social-emotional learning, perspective taking, social problem solving and self-regulation. A byproduct of the Zones approach is better school and work performance while continuing to honor the student as a unique individual with talents of their own.
You are a Social Detective®
You are a Social Detective® is an illustrated and engaging curriculum written to support teachers and parents in their efforts to help learners (with and without diagnoses) experience social cues and learn how to take perspective while doing so. As an ideal introduction to social thinking, You are a Social Detective® empowers elementary-aged children (and beyond) to discover dynamic tools to explore relatable vocabulary that allows them to apply their understanding in a streamlined fashion. The program is available in both book and app form, so its versatility allows the audience to access its invaluable resources from wherever they are needed!
In conjunction with other materials, Superflex® has proven to be one of the most entertaining methods to teach learners social awareness and self-regulation. According to her website, “Superflex® provides a fun forum in which they can explore their challenges and identify ways to modify their thoughts and behavior in different settings. Depicting behaviors as cartoon characters (a.k.a. the Unthinkables) helps students learn about their own behavior in a non-threatening way.”
There is no denying the immense impact Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum on learners near and far. The diversity of resources for learners of all ages and needs is impressive to say the least. As an organization of parents and educators, we are so very grateful for her ongoing development and research.
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
“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: