Executive functions: suddenly we begin to understand

Ever since we moved away from the archaic idiom, “children should be seen and not heard,” teachers have been asking themselves how they can better engage students in learning.  Once we gave students a voice in the classroom, many of them chose to use it to say, “this is boring”.  The struggle to bring learning to a place where the students will engage with it in the modern school setting has become one of the top struggles in the world of education.  We now refer to many of these changes that are taking place as 21st century skills.  But in the end, regardless of what we’re teaching students content or skill-wise within the walls of the classroom, we have to admit that classroom learning and real world application are two rather different worlds.  We are just now really beginning to understand what it means to actually learn in a meaningful way that can transcend initial circumstances and become true skill that is aiding the human in moving forward.  Essentially, in the classroom we are trying to shortcut the process of gaining experience (the only truly proven teacher) so that a student leaves the academic world with the knowledge of experiences that it would have been extremely difficult, if not otherwise impossible, to gain by seeking out true experience with this knowledge and skill base.

In our attempts to engage we struggle with the predilection of youth to be disorganized, to jump from topic to topic, to be far more interested in what they perceive as ‘play’ over what they perceive as ‘work’ (even if the two were the same thing), impulsivity, and a host of other things that we as adults consider impediments to learning…often lumped together and called ‘issues’ in staff meetings.  Very often these things are what lead us to consider a student as a candidate for testing of learning disabilities, which in and of itself can cause us to over react to the student as a ‘Special Ed case’. But all too frequently these things are chalked up to them being young and inconsiderate or non-serious students.  What if there was another option?  What if these students were in fact serious students with enormous creative potential, who had a deep capacity to succeed, and whose presence could in fact be a benefit not only to themselves but to our learning environments, but their tool box was not functioning properly?

See, the tool box is a handyman’s life blood that contains the basics.  A handyman can keep the tool box with them at all times and can draw from it to accomplish all the basic tasks they might need to do.  True, some specialized jobs require specialized or large equipment that doesn’t fit in the toolbox, but those jobs are often done by specialists or more experienced handymen.  But every handyman has a tool box.  If the tool box wasn’t equipped properly, or equipped with tools that weren’t up to the job, then they wouldn’t be able to complete even the most basic jobs, regardless of their other skills.  In this metaphor, as related to students, the executive functions are the tool box.

Tasks such as focus, task-initiation, emotional regulation, remembering, decision making, organization, self-monitoring, and a whole host of others that are necessary to utilize to even approach most school assignments fall under the heading of executive functions, which are regulated most often in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, an area which doesn’t fully develop until later in adolescence, are things that are often overlooked when dealing with trouble with classroom tasks.  Even in students who don’t have trouble with them, they are often overlooked in the actual instruction of a classroom.  These skills are the gateways or bridges which have to be open and functioning for a student to even access the learning potential stored in their brain.

Imagine this scenario: you place a math test in front of two students.  Student A exibits no E.F. deficiencies and is able to skim the test, prioritize which problems they are most comfortable with and begin.  Student A is then able to move onto the problems they were more uncertain about, breaks them down into steps and tackles them.  Student A is organized enough to use their existing knowledge to work through these problems, and their work on the paper is clean and useful to them.  After finishing, Student A is organized enough to remember to give a quick glance back over the test, check to see that their name is on it, and hands it in.  No problems.  Student B has multiple E.F. struggles and looks at the number of problems on the test and is immediately overwhelmed.  Their working memory slots are nearly full up with other distractions and what happened that morning before school, so they are having a hard time accessing their memories of the studying they did.  Student B also has a hard time organizing their work in the page, so even the problems he/she is thinking through correctly aren’t coming out right on the paper.  Student B struggles with prioritizing, so they just begin with problem 1 and work from there, but problem 2 proved especially difficult, so they spent way too long there.  By the time they finished, they were exhausted mentally and running out of time.  They rush through a lot of the rest of the test, even skipping problems that they could normally do, but that they are blanking on where to start.  They forget to put their name on the test, which is filled with errors that the quickest glance back would catch (but it doesn’t occur to them), and they sit silently frustrated until you take the paper from them at the end of the class.  In this scenario you would grade Student A’s test, and have a reasonable understanding of what they know on the topic.  Student B’s test would seem to reveal a deep and profound trouble with whatever mathematical concept you were testing for, when in reality his struggle had nothing to do with the math itself!

Executive function skills are too often overlooked because so many of us developed these skills over time as our frontal lobes developed, or because they are hidden under a larger diagnosis in students that overwhelms us as teachers while that student is in our room.  If a student has an ADHD diagnosis, we’re apt to be focused on the ADHD symptoms and actions rather than looking at each executive function skill to differentiate for each individual struggle.  In the long run even a student who is able to manage their ADHD with medication will still struggle with their E.F. and therefore with school.  We have to begin to change the way we look at the struggles of our students, and we can do that first and foremost by adjusting how we look at teaching itself.  No teacher should have the burden of an overcrowded classroom and a solitary setting.  Team teaching or smaller class sizes allow for more personal understanding of not only the work students are turning in, but the way in which that work is getting done.

In the next post I’ll talk more about some specific executive function skills, and how to differentiate for some of the common struggles students have with them.