April 24, 2018

Executive Skills for Students

Classroom-IconAllison Macko, an elementary moderate special education teacher in Fremont, Ohio, discusses the important role executive skills play in the success of students. Learners Edge provides continuing education for teachers, and in her coursework for Learners Edge Course 5847, Learning to Learn: Student Skills for School and for Life, Allison included three executive skills checklists, one each for the student, the teacher, and the parents to be used when there are questions about a student’s executive skills

All checklists were adapted from: Perform well and Dawson and Guare Executive Skills Questionnaire.

Also included, and unique to Learners Edge, is Allison’s Reflection Requirement.  When completing this requirement, teachers are asked to reflect through the sharing of their thoughts, opinions and learning about course topics. In Allison’s Reflection Requirement, she provides her thoughts about the importance of executive skills for students–preschool through college.

Success in both school and professional pursuits relies on mastering a wide array of executive functioning skills. These skills begin in preschool and become more complex and varied as children get older. Skills such as planning, behavior regulation, organization, impulse control, prioritizing and working memory functioning are crucial to life-long success. Many of these skills are inherit in certain children, but other students must be directly taught these skills by adults and peers.

Research shows that weak executive skills may be a result of a brain based problem in the frontal lobe. Children cannot always control these skills, but they can learn to improve them with direct teaching. Executive functioning skills are often relational to ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders and children who have had brain injuries. These students are at an increased risk for school failure so it is crucial that we spend time teaching these skills and compensatory strategies. Adults need to use standardized measures, questionnaires and observations to determine who is at risk for issues with executive functioning skills. Once they are able to determine more, specific behavior plans can be developed and implemented.

The preschooler who cries easily, interrupts others and cannot complete his work in a timely matter needs to work with an adult who can teach alternative behaviors; such as relaxation techniques, rewards for turn taking, breathing exercises, or a timer to speed work production and social stories to strengthen relationships. Adults and peers can use these techniques and with repeated exposure the child will internalize these skills. Some children will need numerous and varied interventions to gain these skills.

As demands increase, more skills and alternative methods need to be taught. At each age level students are expected to increase work production and independence. As tasks get more complex this becomes harder and harder for certain children. Many children will need to be taught direct interventions at each grade level. Some college students may even need help planning how to study, developing plans for long term projects and learning how to control impulsive behaviors by making smart choices.

Ideally, we would like to see high school and college students who are completely able to use executive functioning skills independently, but such expectations cannot be measured solely by age. We have to take individual capabilitiesinto consideration. There may be other factors in effect such as other learning disabilities and previous experience learning these skills that affect how well they are acquired. These considerations are crucial in the determination of the exact age to cease directly teaching the skills.

Transitions are another key factor in how long executive functioning skills need to be taught. Life is full of transitions for children. We have to remember that as students progress each year from grade to grade they will go through many transitions and will be expected to use executive skills that they have never used before. A drop in performance may indicate a need for the student to be taught how to use new skills. This can occur at any age or grade level. Adults who are transitioning to new jobs may even need to be trained to use new and varied executive skills.

Are we teaching learned helplessness by explicitly teaching these skills? Most children want to do well in school and they want to have positive social relationships and self-esteem. They would not exhibit a lack of these skills if they were able to control them. In the past we academically tracked students early and many children who lacked these skills were labeled as lazy and disruptive. They fell through the cracks. Many ended up with little education, committing crimes or suffering from depression. Diagnosing learning disabilities such as Executive Functioning Disorder allows for a greater percentage of the population to be successful. Recent studies show that everyone benefits from learning these coping skills. Many adults with ADHD who have learned compensatory strategies are more successful than their counterparts.

braing-gearsTeachers and parents need to work together to teach executive skills. These skills are important to use in school to help students attend to tasks, complete work, get along with classmates and use their working memory to solve complex problems and comprehend advanced curriculum. They are important in the home context as well. Children need to be able to organize their rooms, plan out their day, limit distractions to complete home projects, use their time effectively to finish homework and get along with siblings. Teachers and parents who work together to teach these skills have the most success. Tools like checklists, timers and relaxation techniques can be used in many environments. When teachers and parents present a united front, students can buy into a team approach to learning. They see that everyone believes that they can be successful and that the adults in their lives are here to help them.

These skills can also help in other environments. Recent research shows that musicians are adept at using working memory to hold information about tempo, pace and rhythm in their minds. Planning how to surprise an opponent or concentrate on the game rather than the fans are key to athletic success. Controlling your temper and impulses leads to more satisfying relationships. Teaching these skills to students has far reaching benefits.

Many experts argue that we are robbing young children of their childhood by spending time and energy teaching these skills. While I agree that young children need time to simply play and explore their environment, I also believe that executive functioning skills are crucial to academic success in a high stakes testing environments in our increasingly competitive world. Many children feel that school is overwhelming and unmanageable. Explicitly teaching children these skills gives them a way to control their environment and become successful.

Executive skills can be taught in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the classroom. Many routines and procedures benefit the entire class. The goal should be to gradually fade interventions and increase self-reliance. Peers can help teach these skills by monitoring each other. This will lessen the teacher’s involvement and limit disruptions to the flow of the classroom. Peer and adult coaching can also be done outside the normal school day hours or at breaks in the day to limit times students are off learning tasks. Also environmental factors such as limiting visually and auditory distractions, providing helpful graphic organizers and reducing clutter are easy to implement and can help increase working memory.

As the text states, even in the normally developing child, frontal lobes do not fully develop until children are in their 20s. Maturation occurs even later for those who struggle with these skills. We cannot expect children to learn these skills without adult help. It is unfair to expect children to internalize all these skills by a young age. We need to realize that it is a slow process to develop these skills. It may even be a life-long process. Success with learning and using these skills leads to achievement in academics, but also to success beyond school. Therefore parents and teachers must work together to directly and explicitly teach these skills to children at all ages and developmental levels.

Thank you, Allison, for your insightful work. How are you helping your students improve on their Executive Skills?


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