DA op-ed: Why executive function skills matter

Helping students attain long-term goals
By: | July 15, 2019
gettyimages.com: ipopba
Nikosi Darnell is a speech-language pathologist and child development specialist with ClearView Speech & Consulting Services. She is a featured speaker for the 2020 Future of Education Technology Conference®, and will address executive functioning.

Nikosi Darnell is a speech-language pathologist and child development specialist with ClearView Speech & Consulting Services. She is a featured speaker for the 2020 Future of Education Technology Conference® and will address executive functioning.

Did you know that it takes the average person’s brain approximately 25 years to reach maturation? While brain development varies, experts agree that the behaviors and experiences people undergo until age 25 result in solidifying executive function skills. 

Essentially, executive function skills (EFS) are our “built-in capacity to meet challenges and accomplish goals, ” according to Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents (Dawson and Guare, 2018). These skills help us manage our thinking and behavior so that we can focus on what’s important—allowing us to reduce or eliminate distractions that could hinder us from attaining our short- or long-term goals. 

Practically speaking, executive function skills can be classified as thinking or doing. 

Thinking includes working, memory, planning or prioritization, organization, time management, and metacognition skills. 

Doing includes response inhibition, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, goal direction and persistence skills. Together, these skills assist us in attaining our long-term goals, such as a higher GPA, good study habits, an advanced degree and financial independence. Think about all the obstacles you have had to overcome to reach any measure of success at a personal, educational or professional level. The ability to reach long-term goals is a demonstration of executive function skills at work. 

So why is this important to you? Well, as an educator, you play a significant role in supporting students’ EFS. You have the opportunity to shape their EFS in and outside the classroom. 

Here’s how to provide support and structure to students as they develop. Students experiencing weaknesses in EFS will show signs at the behavioral and academic levels. 


Read: What technology can tell us about students’ cognitive skills, and why that matters


At the behavioral level, look for students who: 

  • act without thinking 
  • interrupt others 
  • overreact to small problems 
  • are upset by changes in plans 
  • are overwhelmed by large assignments 
  • talks or play too loudly 
  • resist changes to their routines 
  • don’t notice the impact of their behavior on others 
  • don’t see their behavior as part of the issue 
  • can’t come up with more than one way to solve a problem 
  • are easily overstimulated and have trouble calming down 
  • gets stuck on one topic or activity 

At the academic level, look for students who: 

  • don’t bother to write down assignments 
  • forget directions 
  • forget to bring materials home 
  • keep putting off homework 
  • run out of steam before finishing homework 
  • choose fun stuff over homework or chores 
  • have passive study methods (or don’t study) 
  • forget their homework or forget to turn in homework 
  • leave long-term assignments or chores until the last minute 
  • have sloppy work 
  • have messy notebooks 
  • lose or misplace things 

Of course, these lists of signs are not comprehensive. They are meant to provide a brief overview of what to look for in students struggling with EFS. 

What can you do to help? 

At the academic level: 

  • make the task shorter 
  • make the steps more explicit 
  • make tasks more “closed ended” 
  • build in a variety or choice 
  • build in breaks 
  • have students set goals 
  • develop a reward system with students 
  • establish classroom routines 
  • work collaboratively with parents, teachers and students 

Use behavior modification: 

  • describe the problem behavior 
  • set a goal 
  • establish a procedure or set of steps to reach the goal 
  • supervise the student following the procedure 
  • evaluate the process and make changes, as needed 
  • “fade” the supervision 
  • monitor performance 
  • problem solve 
  • provide feedback 

Use an incentive system: 

  • describe the problem behavior and set a goal 
  • decide on possible rewards and contingencies 
  • write a behavior contract 
  • evaluate the process and make changes, as needed 

Please note that these recommendations can be adapted to accommodate both individuals and groups of students in the classroom. 

As an educator, you have a huge opportunity to positively influence the future success of students as you support their EFS growth and development. 


Nikosi Darnell is a speech-language pathologist and child development specialist with ClearView Speech & Consulting Services. Darnell is a featured speaker for the 2020 Future of Education Technology Conference®, and she will address executive functioning.

 


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