A student who is struggling academically may be dealing with more than just grasping the material; a deficiency in any of the five key components of executive function could be inhibiting student success. Though scientists and researchers do not yet fully understand the exact elements of executive function, they have pinpointed five areas as key contributing factors:
1. Working Memory and Recall
2. Activation, Arousal, and Effort
3. Emotion Control
4. Internalizing language
5. Complex Problem Solving
When students struggle with any of these areas, problems occur in their daily routines. Problems such as difficulty remembering and reflecting on the past can mean repeating misbehaviors. Students may have a weak sense of self-awareness, which also impedes their ability to examine and adjust their behavior. Students might also struggle with accurately judging the passage of time, and may be unable to use their sense of time to prepare for upcoming events. Their grasp of the future can be affected, rendering them less likely to plan for or talk about the future. In the classroom, this temporal disconnect can make it difficult to build upon past lessons learned. Other common executive functioning challenges that we encounter in the classroom include: impaired working memory, slow processing speed, difficulty with multi-step math problems, and trouble with written expression. Luckily, there are some very simple and successful solutions to this complex problem.
Here at The Cloverleaf School, we use a variety of teaching methods and strategies to improve our students’ academic success and overall cognitive skills. Researchers agree that “Succeeding in school is one of the most therapeutic things that can happen to a child.” We know executive function is closely linked to that success, and we strive to build tools our students can use in order to achieve their full potential and walk the halls with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
We do this by making the learning process as visual and concrete as we possible can. We ease the pressure of written expression (which is considered the most common learning problem for children with AD/HD and co-existing conditions) by replacing written work with oral responses or hands-on tasks, and by providing pictures as visual prompts.
In our math classes we use lots visuals and manipulatives to engage students on several planes for learning. We make sure charts and diagrams are available for quickly referring back to math rules and key words. Visual references can increase long-term retention.
We use mnemonics (memory tricks), such as acronyms (who remembers All Good Boys Deserve Fudge in music class?!). We color-code and encourage students to highlight important information. We display visual schedules in classrooms, set “Time-Timers” (visual timers), and post visual prompts at the “point of action.” Students use plenty of graphic organizers and often Post-It Notes to help compile thoughts. We also shorten assignments when appropriate, allow more time for tests (sometimes even breaking them down into smaller segments over separate class periods), and use technology whenever possible.
Even the language we use with our students is carefully planned to aid in building their executive function “muscles:” “Repeat the directions back to me. Now what is your next step?” Or, instead of pointing out an error, we give them the opportunity to spot it first. “I noticed something on your paper. Do you know what it might be?” When they ask questions, we may ask them where they could find the answers on their own without teachers’ help. We encourage self-evaluation through error analysis: “What went wrong?” and “What would you change next time?” Students are also encouraged to share their interpretations of their mistakes, others’ mistakes, and even ours as teachers!
Through this variety of approaches and processes, we are lending a guiding hand to students who may be riddled with questions on how to get from point a to point b socially and academically. We work at providing the tools necessary for students to construct their own path to a solution. We offer students a chance at guided self-discovery: direct instruction in strategies, then provide opportunities to use those strategies in a supportive environment.
This is a broad subject with a considerable stake in the success of our children now and into their futures. I encourage everyone to research more information for themselves on executive function, and to conduct open conversations with friends, other parents, and us at the school in order to do everything we can to achieve success.
Being a music lover, I appreciate Dr. Brown’s metaphor relating executive function to the critical job a conductor has in an orchestra:
To that point, I believe it is our role as parents, educators and community leaders to be constantly and consciously aware of our children’s struggles with executive function. We must offer tools and support so they may compose and conduct a beautiful life and live in symphonic harmony.