30 March, 2016
Teachers can aid students strengthen their brain’s executive function with “workouts” in which they practice pausing, prioritizing, enhancing their working memory, and mapping their options.
The brain’s executive function network performs in the same capacity as a coach, CEO, or drum major: directing one’s thinking and cognitive abilities toward setting goals and planning to accomplish them, establishing priorities, getting and staying organized, and focusing attention on the task at hand. Now imagine trying to do those abilities if your brain’s executive functioning system wasn’t working efficiently — no coach to develop a game plan, no CEO to help you organize your resources for accomplishing your goals, no drum major on which to maintain your learning focus.
That’s the challenge facing students with attention deficit disorders, who in effect struggle with executive dysfunction. As a former classroom teacher and school psychologist, Donna worked with numerous youth who had great difficulty with a variety of executive functions, including:
- The ability to prevent behavior, which often resulted in impulsivity, an abundance of movement, and difficulty following instructions
- Initiation and planning behavior, the lack of which made it hard for students to get started on classroom work and assignments and keep their focus on learning tasks for the duration required to complete them
- Working memory and the ability to selectively maintain attention on information needed to complete a learning task
- Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to identify when it may be useful to adjust one’s thinking and action based on new information
Children and youth can be taught to enhance their executive functioning to become more successful self-directed learners. Explicit instruction about executive function and how to improve it is especially helpful for students with learning challenges, as they can benefit the most from learning to rein in and consciously direct their “scattered minds.”
Executive Function “Workouts”
Practical instruction to help struggling students refine executive function offers potential dual benefits. First, students will be readier to improve their performance in school and, later, on the job. Second, classroom management issues will be reduced by teaching these students strategies to avoid distractions — and to create fewer distractions for classmates.
The following are strategies to guide students with attention deficits:
- “Just a moment, let me think.” Students who show poor impulse control often benefit from additional adult support, including one-on-one approach about ways to overcome habits like blurting out an answer without thinking it through or behaving in ways that distract other students. For example, a teacher might suggest that an impulsive student repeat the question either out loud or silently before answering. Maybe the teacher will agree on a “secret word,” a password that the teacher can say to remind the student about using his or her executive function abilities. Integrating regular opportunities for movement into lessons can also help students decrease impulsive behaviors and stay focused on learning.
- Start with the end in mind. Initiative, defined as preparedness and skill in taking action, applies many aspects of executive function to maximum impact in school, work, and life. To help students develop initiative, guide them to establish their clear intent for a learning project as the initial step in setting out a concrete plan to complete the task. Then if they start to go off task, they can revisit their clear intent: “Is what I’m doing now helping me to achieve my goal?” Breaking down learning tasks into a series of instructions is another useful method that models for students a step-by-step approach to direct their attention toward a small, discrete action that will move them closer to accomplishing their clear intent. Each little success along the way — clicking another item off the to-do list — can help keep students focused on big goals.
- Learn to remember. Researchers working with students with attention deficits found that training to enhance working memory helped them avoid distractions and improve school outcomes. A variety of strategies have been developed to bulk up working memory. It is found that teachers and students alike enjoy and find useful a recall activity that is called Memory Pegs, which uses association to improve memory. To help students recall the names of the first ten U.S. presidents in order, for example, guide them to say the names as they tap “pegs” on their body in descending order: George Washington (head), John Adams (shoulders), Thomas Jefferson (heart), all the way to number ten, John Tyler (toes).
- Consider more options. Cognitive flexibility is a form of higher-order thinking that students can apply in creative problem solving and in weighing the pros and cons of multiple alternatives. Students with ADD may grab on to the first idea or answer that comes to mind. You can teach students to map their choices with a graphic organizer that places the problem or question in the middle and stimulates them to surround it with two or more answers — and the more the merrier. Option mapping reinforces that there is often more than one solution to a problem or think about a concept. That in itself is a useful example of executive function at work!