March 1, 2018
by Kaia Cunningham
When we think of our most successful students, we often imagine individuals who not only have a deep grasp of the content they learn in school, but also are able to easily organize their binders and computer files, able to effectively manage their time, and able to demonstrate a command of how to use the information they learn during the school day. Typically, a student who can make language management seem effortless is an individual who has excellent executive function skills.
There are many theorists (Brown, Meltzer, Barkley) who study these brain functions, all with slightly differing definitions and breakdowns of the executive functions, but in short, our executive functions allow us to coordinate tasks and sustain our efforts toward an end goal. This process can be school-related: managing and organizing all the materials that one might need to study for a test and the motivation and persistence to follow through on these tasks. We also see these skills at play in adult life in understanding what needs to be done to manage the day-to-day responsibilities of independent living and following through on necessary tasks (such as maintaining a driver’s license, a job, a house).
However, we also see compromised executive functions in students who struggle to manage the day-to-day activities required in school or adults who seem to never quite have their lives running smoothly. Many students with language-based learning disabilities also struggle with their executive functions. These students’ memories are often so overloaded with the language demands inherent in attaining academic proficiency – reading, writing, speaking, listening – that they are challenged to engage in goal directed behavior or persistance. These challenges often hinder the most insightful learners and leave many teachers puzzled as to why these students cannot get started, forget necessary materials, are so easily distracted, and struggle to complete work that reflects their thinking on a topic.
Noted executive function expert, Peg Dawson says of the importance of explicitly teaching executive functioning skills:
“It is a rare employer who asks an employee to solve an algebraic equation or outline the economic and cultural factors that led to the Civil War. On a daily basis, however, employers ask their employees to use planning, organization, and time-management skills, as well as all the other executive skills… These same skills are necessary to function as responsible adults in the home and all other venues. By targeting executive skills, schools can more effectively prepare students for life beyond school” (Dawson 2013, p. 2).
Educators can teach these essential executive function skills by explicitly instructing students in how to manage their time, materials, and information. These three areas of expertise comprise the academic tasks known as “study skills.” If educators can break down the process and teach strategies for learning how to study for a test, write a research paper, organize a binder, manage frustrations to continue on a challenging task, or remember to turn in their homework, these struggling students will improve in their ability to engage in goal directed persistence on academic tasks. This video includes interviews with students who express how they have seen study skills improve their performance in school.
Although creating an organizational system or structuring a paper might seem obvious or inherent to the process of learning for proficient learners, for many students, study skills instruction can be an eye-opening and demystifying experience, leading to greater student performance and confidence.
ADHD and Executive Function – Dr. Russell Barkley [Video file]. (2010, November 10). Retrieved February 28, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR1IZJXc6d8\
Brown, T. E. (2008, February). Executive Functions: Six Aspects of a Complex Syndrome. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from http://www.brownadhdclinic.com//pdfs/Executive_Functions_by_Thomas_Brown.pdf
Dawson, P. (2013, April 10). Best Practices in Assessing and Improving Executive Skills. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from http://www.smartbutscatteredkids.com/Media/ExecutiveSkillsChapter.pdf
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
Kaia has been at Landmark since 2006. In addition to her work for Outreach, she has been a language arts teacher at Landmark High School. Previously, her roles and responsibilities included assistant director of the preparatory program, academic advisor, and full-time teacher and tutor. Kaia graduated from The College of Santa Fe with her bachelor’s in English, and she earned her master’s degree in special education from Simmons College.
Suggestions for supporting executive function growth in the classroomView Resources
Suggestions for supporting study skills development in the classroomView Resources