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Improving Executive Function Skills—An Innovative Strategy that May Enhance Learning for All Children

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from CEC Today, August 2008

Janie did well in school until she got to fourth grade. Then her grades dropped, she couldn’t keep up with her work load, she got frustrated, and her self-esteem was sinking. Janie was referred for testing for special education, but she scored well on the assessments. What was wrong? Janie’s difficulties in school stemmed from executive function (EF) weaknesses. Janie is not alone. While children who have learning disabilities, autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injury, and conduct disorder often have difficulties with EF, more children without disabilities are exhibiting EF problems as well.

While definitions vary, EF generally refers to the cognitive processes that enable individuals to engage in goal-directed or problem-solving behaviors. Thus, EF may include goal setting or identifying a problem, developing a plan, the ability to execute the plan, flexibility, attention and memory systems to guide the individual (e.g., working memory), and evaluation or self-monitoring.

Some are now recommending that all children be taught EF processes systematically starting in the elementary grades. One reason is that even in early elementary grades teachers are requiring students to complete long-term projects, as well as lengthy reading and writing assignments—all of which require EF, says Lynn Meltzer, co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Learning and Development and professor at Tufts University. A second reason is that in today’s technologically reliant society, students often turn to the Internet or other technology for information.

“We live in an Internet-driven society,” says Meltzer. “Students are not taught from information that is pre-organized by experts…it is critical that every child is taught these kinds of strategies. They impact all aspects of student work as they move up in grade levels. Students must coordinate multiple subskills in second grade.”

While all students benefit from instruction in EF strategies, such instruction is even more critical for students with disabilities. Research has shown that students with cognitive disabilities and behavior disorders often have weaknesses in EF. With explicit instruction, these students may develop the EF skills, which can help them progress academically and socially.

How Effective Is EF Training?

At this point, research on EF training is still limited. Torkel Klingberg, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and his colleagues conducted a study of children with ADHD. They found that better working memory skills may reduce ADHD symptoms. In another study, children trained in the EF skill of selective attention were quicker to respond than the control group. These results suggest that EF training may affect the way children’s brains develop. However, there is much to learn in this area. For example, the brain’s adaptations in response to EF training may be gradual and accumulative, and training may be needed for an extended period of time. Also, EF training would need to continue to challenge children’s skills.

What Happens When EF Is Weak?

Difficulties in EF have long-ranging consequences. Some obvious effects of EF impairment includes children’s ability to organize materials, plan long-term projects, manage time, and persist in accomplishing an academic goal such as a term paper or reading a long book. EF weakness also makes it difficult for students to start and complete tasks, and their ability to handle frustration is compromised.

EF problems also manifest themselves in academic tasks such as reading or writing an essay, state Meltzer and Kalyani Krishnan in Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice. Some of the EF processes involved in reading include 1) drawing on prior knowledge as students shift from “retrieving and interpreting background knowledge to attending to and interpreting print and new content,” 2) flexibility as students interpret words, draw inferences, and process redundant information, and 3) prioritizing as students decide which parts of the text is useful for their purpose. Writing requires students to plan, engage in flexible thinking (paraphrasing the topic), organize, and prioritize.

Students with EF problems may also be poor test-takers. First, they are unable to prioritize which information to study when preparing for the test. As they take the test, they are unable to prioritize tasks, plan responses, or monitor their time.

EF problems can also manifest themselves through behavior problems. Failure to plan, to inhibit behavior despite intentions, and to evaluate can all lead students to act inappropriately, according to Philip David Zelazo, professor at the University of Toronto, in his AboutKidsHealth series on EF. For example, some children may act inappropriately, because they do not plan or anticipate the consequences of their behavior. In other instances, children who cannot inhibit their actions may continue to behave inappropriately even when they understand the consequences of those actions; children who have difficulty evaluating may not be able learn from punishment and will therefore repeat inappropriate behavior.

EF and Disabilities

Specific EF impairments appear to affect particular disabilities. Children with learning disabilities have difficulty with numerous facets of EF, according to Meltzer and Krishnan. These include self-regulatory activities such as checking, monitoring, and revising when learning as well as weaknesses in cognitive flexibility, sorting, organizing, and prioritizing information.

“Their (students with learning disabilities) strong conceptual reasoning abilities may not match their output and productivity because of their difficulties organizing and prioritizing numerous details, juggling these details in working memory, and shifting flexibly between abstract concepts and literal details as well as from major themes to the details,” state Meltzer and Krishnan in Executive Function in Education.

Some researchers see ADHD not just as a problem of paying attention but as a weakness of EF, says Thomas E. Brown, professor at Yale University, in “ADHD as Executive Function Impairments” in the Help Group Newsletter. Hyperactivity or impulsivity could stem from a student’s inability to control his or her actions or verbalization, both of which can be manifestations of EF problems, he says. Children with ADHD may also manifest EF impairments that impact organizing, planning, and remembering.

“The core of their problem (individuals with ADHD) is a developmental impairment in being able to manage their mind to focus on tasks they need to do, even when those tasks are not immediately interesting,” Brown says in the article.

Meltzer says students with learning disabilities and ADHD share a similar EF problem—information overload.

“These students have information coming into a funnel that needs to be processed and prioritized,” she says. “They also have to figure out what is most important, ignore the irrelevant information, and shift from the main idea to details. They can’t. The funnel is clogged, and as a result these students can’t produce the kind of projects and essays required.”

Children with autism, too, show deficits in EF. Specifically, these individuals have difficulty in planning future actions and cognitive flexibility.

Assessing EF

Assessing EF, especially in children, is a complex task. Just of couple of factors that can skew results are that individuals’ results on EF assessments may vary due to their anxiety level or they may perform well on tasks in an assessment setting but not when faced with similar tasks in the real world, especially when novelty is a feature of the situation. Also, it is difficult to parse out one area that is the source of EF difficulty.

That said, some of the assessments used to determine EF ability include:
• Stroop Color Word Task—Measures an individual’s ability to inhibit responses, resolve interference, and resolve behavioral conflict.
• Go–No Go Task—Measures an individual’s attention, flexibility of responding, and ability to withhold a response.
• Stop-Signal Task—Measures an individual’s ability to stop a response that is already underway.
• Tower of Hanoi—Measures an individual’s ability to plan ahead.
• Wisconsin Card Sorting Test—Measures an individual’s ability to test hypothesis and flexibility.

Strategies to Strengthen EF

Though EF strategies can—and often are—taught in one-on-one settings or in small groups, some recommend that all students be taught EF strategies in general education classes.

“We need to teach executive function strategies so students can plan, organize, prioritize and use their working memory effectively,” says Meltzer. “Then students become efficient and successful; their self-esteem improves and their effort becomes more goal-oriented. All students benefit from the strategies, and some students must have them. If we embed the strategies in the curriculum, all students benefit.”

A few models of classroom-based EF strategy instruction are available, including the Kansas intervention model, Benchmark model, and Drive to Thrive, according to Meltzer in her book, Executive Function in Education. All of these models share common principles:
• Strategy instruction should be directly linked to the curriculum.
• The strategies should be taught explicitly, including teacher modeling and extensive practice.
• Strategies should be taught in a structured, systematic way.
• Strategy instruction should address students’ motivation and effort.

One way to implement the above is for educators to teach a strategy a week, says Meltzer.

As a follow up, create a “Strategy of the Week Board,” on which students post their favorite strategy. This also creates a springboard for a discussion of the strategies.

However, EF strategies are not a “one size fits all.” For students to use EF strategies effectively, as a first step they must understand their own learning profile and their strengths and weaknesses as well as which strategies work for them, according to Meltzer.

“You need to teach the strategies for the school and classroom, as well as for the individual child,” she says. “Then you help students become metacognitive learners who can understand how they learn.”

Examples of EF Strategies

Special educators already use many of the strategies that help students improve EF, such as checklists and “how to” lists, breaking long assignments into chunks, and using visual calendars, time organizers, and mnemonics.

Meltzer takes these strategies a step further. Some examples from Executive Function in Education are:
• Memorization—When using acronyms to help students memorize information, the “crazier the phrase,” the better. If a student is non-verbal, then make a cartoon.
• Cognitive Flexibility—To help students improve cognitive flexibility, work with riddles and jokes to help students shift between word meanings. In math, students can ask themselves: do I know another way to solve this problem, does this look similar to other problems I have seen, is this problem the same or different from the one before it?
• Prioritizing—To help students prioritize information, teach students to listen to the teacher’s intonation during lectures. Also, students can highlight the most important ideas in a text in one color and details in another color.
• Notetaking—To help students prioritize and remember information students can take 3-column notes: the first column contains one word that is the core concept, the second column contains the details supporting the concept, the third column contains the strategy the student will use to remember the information. When taking notes from text, students can use a 2-column approach. In the first column, students ask themselves questions about the text, and they put the answers in the second column.
• Self-Monitoring and Self-Checking—Helping students check their work requires two processes: 1) Provide explicit checklists for assignments, so students know what to check for, and 2) Help students develop personalized checklists, so they become aware of and check for their most common errors. As a final step, students can make their own acronyms to remind themselves of their personal error traps.


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