Acting Head of Learning Enrichment

Executive Function: Think, Plan, Do, Check

The mental processes that help us connect past experiences with present action are collectively termed executive functions. We use them daily to plan, organise, strategise, attend to and remember details, as well as manage time and space. These skills develop gradually and at different rates in all of us, they are not an inherent automatic skill. For some students with learning and attentional difficulties, these skills almost always need to be specifically supported and explicitly taught.

As students progress through middle school and into high school they are required to master a wide range of skills relying on their executive functioning capabilities. Their success depends on their ability to plan, organise and prioritise tasks, materials and information, separate main ideas from details, think flexibly, memorise content and monitor progress.

Deficits in executive functioning can be observed in various contexts.

 Impulse control is one area where students lack the ability to stop and think before acting. This is observable in their school tasks when they might speed through their work, sacrificing accuracy and completeness. They may prefer to choose other activities without considering obligations or commitments. Students demonstrating inflexibility when routines or tasks become complicated become frustrated.  They find it difficult to initiate a task and organise and maintain their systems to keep track of information and materials. This is also evident when they easily give up on complex tasks. Weak working memory is observable with multi-step tasks, a series of directions or remembering and applying important information. Planning and prioritising assignments is overwhelming, and the ability to create steps to reach goals and to make decisions about what to focus on is compromised. Procrastination and avoidance may become coping mechanisms. The ability to self-monitor and evaluate their own performance is not easily reflective by the student. These students are often not receptive to constructive feedback and are surprised by low grades. Finally, students with weak executive functioning skills become distressed as managing their emotions is a constant battle. Compensating for these skills is exhausting and the resulting feelings of helplessness, insecurity and anxiety become daily experiences. Self-esteem is often severely compromised.

Given reassurance, support, guidance and skills, these challenges can be minimised. Extra time and practise will be needed to help develop these skills but once these habits are established the success will be rewarded and the intrinsic motivation will generate a sense of pride and accomplishment. It is imperative that the suggestions below are modelled and guided first before independently being executed. Here is how you can help at home:

Organizing and Prioritising

Time:

  • Model good planning and organisational strategies.
  • Visual planners are imperative, select paper or electronic calendars to schedule important task dates allocating time to complete them. Use shared bulletin boards, digital flashcards or sticky notes as reminders.
  • Set meeting requests for conversations or appointments.
  • Make lists of tasks to complete. The satisfaction experienced when checked off is empowering!
  • Use timers to schedule breaks and off task periods.
  • Create comfortable routines and habits.

Tasks:

  • Break tasks down into achievable chunks using flowcharts, scaffolds or sequenced steps. Prioritise the tasks based on due dates, level of stress or difficulty level.

Materials:

  • Have a place where commonly used items are stored and are easily accessible.
  • Collect the materials needed before starting the task.
  • Ensure that online learning platforms such as emails, One Note and Google Classroom are regularly cleared, updated and sorted.
  • Regularly check the assessment calendar.
  • Schedule weekly clearing and organising of backpacks and lockers.
  • Brightly colour coded files and work books also help lessen the cognitive load.

 

Thinking Flexibly:

  • Shifting thinking routines encourage the understanding that tasks can be accomplished differently.
  • Activities that build inferential meaning such as puzzles and jokes add to the perception of different points of view.
  • Finding patterns in maths such as inverse operations and connections between topics assist with understanding of new concepts.
  •  Assisting students to recognise that different subjects require different study skills and strategies extends their flexibility.

 

Working Memory:

  • Work with their strengths by drawing on that to support weaker areas.
  • Break up or chunk information by using visual and auditory cues and prompts to work as reminders, such as checklists, tip sheets, summaries, timetables and even alarm notifications on the phone.
  •  Reinforce what works for them by identifying successful strategies and repeating them to create success.
  • Discourage multi-tasking and focus on completing one activity at a time.

 

Self-Monitoring/ Checking:

  • Use self-talk by talking through your own checklists, reviewing and revising plans and discussing how to avoid errors.
  • Tracking completed tasks by editing and reviewing should be built into the process.
  • Chunk information using graphic organiser or anchor charts and checklists.
  • Colour coding and highlighting assists with quick visual support of processing what needs to be connected and focused on.
  • Create a personalised list of errors when editing written work or checking math problems.
  •  Use text-to-speech technology to assist with grammar and sentence structure.
  • Use silly songs, acronyms or mnemonics to remind them of important information or items.
  • Use timers to keep on track of time spent on tasks and incorporate rest breaks that encourage outdoor activity into their schedules.

 

Behaviour and Emotions:

  • Simplify and condense tasks and instructions to make them more concrete.
  • Ensure they have the skill and ability to accomplish the task.
  • Use cues or prompts to get them started.
  • Offer choices about what and how to do something.
  • Offer rewards that are personally motivating – autonomy is very motivating.
  • Praise effort and be specific about what aspect has been accomplished well.

 

For further reading please click here.

 

Mrs Simonetta Cesamolo

Acting Head of Learning Enrichment