Executive Function: what is it and how we can assist our students, first steps

In my role as a speech and language pathologist in the middle school, I often see the difficulties my students have in the classroom. I may have taught a skill or concept in my treatment with them, I may witness their hard effort to complete an assignment but yet they still are failing. Why is this happening?

I am fortunate to work in a school in which the teachers strive to provide support for the students with study guides, graphic organizers, agenda checks, and office hours. Yet still, the students feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the content, how much they need to process from the lectures, what they are to gain from the reading assignments, what they need to complete to demonstrate their understanding. There are some students that do not know that they are not understanding the task.  With so much support from the teaching team, there can be a level of frustration when the student’s output does not match the expectations.

For many of the students, it is because they have deficits in executive functioning skills. This becomes increasingly evident in middle school in which the academics become more complex, the student has multiple teachers, expectations, and organizational systems to navigate, there are more homework assignments, projects, and teamwork that is expected of them.

The term Executive functioning has in its name a clue to what it is. What does an ‘executive’ need to be able to complete their work? They need to:

  • Set goals and priorities
  • Plan, organize, initiate, sequence, and monitor one’s behavior
  • Develop and implement effective strategies for problem-solving or task completion
  • Inhibit impulsive responses and regulate emotional responses
  • Keep track of information in working memory
  • Coordinate complex tasks by maintaining attention, sequencing tasks, and organizing materials, physical space, thoughts, and language
  • Efficiently retrieve stored information from memory when needed
  • Think in a flexible manner (cognitive flexibility)
  • Make judgments about the amount of time and effort needed for a task

Executive Functioning is a topic that I continuingly explore as I am trying to hone my skills in working with students. As a speech and language pathologist with a large caseload, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the day-to-day needs of my students but if I look more at developing my student’s executive functioning skills this will have more of an impact. This will create independence in my students so that there is not the same need for adult support.

How do we do this?  We directly teach and reinforce the skills needed.

In examining my own practice I realize that in my ‘home’ school, a K-2 school I have had a common practice of having the students create a ‘goal’ sheet so they know where they are going. We have typically done this with them picking a picture and then we think of three short-term goals that they will work on. We monitor these together with some concrete goal lines so that the students clearly know when they have met their goals. They bring a copy of this home to their parents and we keep a copy for display. This also serves as a way for me to measure the rate of growth and which students I may need to add more or a different approach to the instruction.

I do not do this for my middle school students. They are also the students often asking ” Why am I here?” Over the coming weeks, I will meet with my middle school students and create goals with them to assist them in developing this skill and to give them a greater understanding of their own Individual Education Plan (IEP) so that together we can work as a team. If they don’t know where they are going how will they get there?

I know that personally, I create goals for myself.  I have four journals that every morning I review. One has my daily plan and goals, one is specific to my health goals, one is specific to my business plan and finally one is a long-term goal journal. I constantly find myself needing to adjust my priorities and goals and the way that I am working on them ( hence the 4 journals). If I need to do this kind of review and work don’t I owe it to my students to assist them in finding their own way of setting and reviewing their goals?

How do you set your personal and professional goals?  What do you do to assist your students in learning this process?


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