In the first post of her three-part series, special education teacher Sarah Kesty will discuss executive functioning and how it effects students in the classroom. Her following blog posts will address techniques and strategies to teach it and what technology and supports can be implemented to help both teachers and students. Read on to learn more about EF and the role it plays with today’s students.

I want to describe a student to you. He’s brilliant. But his brilliance often seems hidden behind a puzzling (and often frustrating) set of challenges. He finishes his work but forgets to turn it in. He leaves a task before finishing it or forgets the directions as he executes the first steps. He seems genuinely surprised by deadlines and can’t organize his space for the daily tasks that require the same items each time. Sound like a kid you may know? Often, as teachers, we assume that these “behaviors” reflect a lack of effort on a student’s part. We may even label the child as lazy. But, I’m here to challenge you with a new idea. What if these struggles did not reflect behavior choices, but instead, reflected a skill deficit?

Enter: executive function. Executive function is a set of skills that are utilized in everyday student and adult lives. Executive function includes organization, inhibition control, planning, managing attention, short term memory, flexible thinking, and emotional control. It’s a set of skills that may go unnoticed—until you realize your student is missing one (or many)! You can think of executive function skills collectively as the director inside your student’s brain—it has many jobs, running simultaneously, and if it’s missing a part, things aren’t done well or sometimes aren’t done at all.

Problems with executive function are common. In fact, as an adolescent brain develops, the frontal lobe of the brain (most closely associated with executive function) is one of the last components to develop. Yes, you read that right. Your tween or teen’s brain has not finished developing (until age 22) and can leave your child not yet knowing how to inhibit impulses, organize his or her space, manage deadlines, and navigate the demands of school and a social life!

Executive function challenges are also associated with certain disabilities, including ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities. The great news is that no matter the source of the challenge, there are proven, research-based, use-right-now strategies that can help you teach and coach your students!

In the upcoming blog series, I will be outlining how to identify which executive functions are most impacting your students as well as how to fill those skill gaps using direct teaching and mindful coaching. In the meantime, though, here are a few tips as you begin to rethink your students’ “challenging behaviors”:

  1. Listen to yourself. Pay attention to your narrative about students. If you’ve been complaining about the same issues all year, chances are your approach isn’t working. Ditch it. Be brave enough to embrace a new way of thinking, even reframing the challenges as “puzzles to be solved together” rather than daily annoyances.
  2. Don’t “should” on your students. If you hear anything similar to, “You’re in X grade, you should know…” or “You’re X years old, you should be able to…” stop and reflect. What your should-ing illuminates is a gap in student ability. Reminding him that he is behind does nothing to fill in the skills hole. Take note of what skills he “should” know and make it a to-teach list.
  3. Think about your thinking. As you become more aware of the impact of executive function on students’ lives, be mindful of how much you, as an adult, rely on your own executive functions. Packing your lunch is a series of steps that includes remembering to do it, initiating the sequence, packing enough food and utensils, remembering to take your lunch to work…you may have hidden strategies that support your success in this seemingly simple task! For me, I leave my lunch bag in the way of my breakfast area (to provide a visual prompt) and when it’s packed, I move it in front of the door to ensure I don’t forget it. I also use my lunch bag as a space to put reminders of top priority for the upcoming day—usually on a bright sticky note to make sure my brain attends to it. You’ll see examples like this throughout your day! Being mindful of the strategies you employ to ensure success will help you when you’re ready to invite your students to learn with and from you.

Sarah Kesty teaches special education at a middle school in Chula Vista, California. She is a passionate advocate for people of all abilities and author of the children’s book Everyone Has Something: Together We Can. Sarah writes and speaks for education and disability organizations. She is on the advisory board for the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association, helping parents navigate the school system for children with CMT. Sarah loves researching and innovating, and she specializes in executive functioning, ADHD, and learning disabilities. She lives in San Diego with her husband, rescued cat, and soon, chickens!

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