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Weak executive function processes are often implicated in students’ reduced level of achievement. Cognitive-behavioral interventions that address poor implementation of executive function processes have been shown to effectively teach students with learning disabilities in mathematics, reading and writing (Lyon, Fletcher, Fuchs, & Chhabra, 2006). However, until recently, the ability to address executive function processes in the classroom was left to school psychologists as many teachers had not been taught about these basic, yet necessary processes that enable academic achievement.
What are executive function processes?
A simple analogy to explain what executive function processes are can be depicted by a person standing at the top of a mountain overseeing the entire valley below. Having this bird’s eye view enables the person to see the big picture without losing sight of the meaningful details below and losing the overall landscape (Meltzer, 2010). Executive function processes allows individuals to shift back and forth within a task from focusing on the details, while remaining completely aware of the overall goal. The same processes also allow the student to evaluate whether their current work, consisting of many minute details and steps, is leading them to succeed in attaining their overall goal.
When engaging in academic studies, students constantly need to shift their attention from one activity to the next. Students with weak executive function processes find it very difficult to screen out important facts from a text, summarize, take notes, read for meaning and engage in steps to help them remember the material. In other words, due to the multitude of tasks needed to accomplish an activity, students often do not prioritize, plan, organize and implement the correct steps in order to reach a successful conclusion. It is as if they are experiencing an overload of information that they do not know how to manage and they get stuck and are unable to complete the task at hand (Meltzer, 2010). So, it is no small wonder that students with executive function deficits often have great difficulties in starting an assignment, sustaining attention and completing their work on time.
Executive function processes can be broken down into at least five components:
1. Prioritizing – Ordering that is based on relative importance; trying to discover what is most important, such as in figuring out the most seminal and main points, as opposed to unimportant details, in reading and writing assignments.
2. Organizing – Sorting information and arranging it in a systematic way, such as using graphic organizers and charts for writing assignments or maps, webs, and Venn diagrams for reading and writing.
3. Working Memory – Holding information in attention so that it can be manipulated and integrated with prior knowledge, such as completing assignments that require multiple steps that are sequential or thinking about particular themes or characters while reading that requires remembering of previous information to be integrated with newer information.
4. Shifting – Directing attention from one activity to another in order to incorporate new information or as a means to look at the task in a new light, such as understanding that a word may have multiple meanings in a reading assignment or implementing a different problem solving approach to a word problem.
5. Self-monitoring – Reviewing assignments and checking for errors or information that was omitted, such as using self-monitoring checklists.
Helpful tips for teachers to address executive function processes (Melzer, 2010)
1) Emphasize and teach students metacognitive strategies. Remind students to self-evaluate their thinking processes so they can begin to know how they learn and not to just finish the assignment.
2) Make self-monitoring mandatory rather than an optional. Require students to list their employed strategies on homework and exams and include this as part of the grade.
3) Create strategy reflection sheets for tests and homework. Grade students for writing down their thoughts and explanations on how they completed the assignments.
4) Provide ample time to include self-monitoring processes. Have the class engage in checking and correcting their work on exams and classroom assignments.
5) Help students to develop daily checklists. These lists should remind them to not only complete their homework, but to bring it to school and submit it on time.
6) Allocate time for daily strategy sharing discussions. Give students a 10 minute block of time to share the strategies they used on particular assignments. Inevitably this will aid in developing students’ self-awareness of how they think and learn.
7) Implement peer tutoring and peer mentoring programs. Allowing student collaboration promotes diverse effective strategy problem solving techniques in the classroom.
8) Help students to use visual prompts. Techniques such as taping notes to their lockers to remind them of the books they need for class and to take home to complete homework or studying for exams.
9) Provide feedback to students on their effort and specific strategy use. This moves student learning to a process rather than product orientation. Learning is not always about getting the right answer; frame the discussion around their correct or incorrect attainment of the answer.
10) Direct students to shift from silent to oral proof reading. This will allow students to hear what they wrote in order to help identify errors and make the appropriate corrections.
Implications for the classroom
What can be more important than enabling students to be successful in each and every endeavor? The question really is how is this to be achieved? Therefore, it is incumbent upon teachers to instruct students on developing good executive function processing skills and not assume that they will be automatically acquired.
Lyon, G. R., Fletcher, J. M., Fuchs, L. S., & Chhabra, V. (2006). Learning disabilities. In E. J.
Mash & R. A. Barkley (Eds.), Treatment of childhood disorders (pp. 512-591). New
York: Guilford Press.
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at firstname.lastname@example.org.