Executive Functioning: What IS It, and How to Improve it!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I got a chance to go to OCALICON this past week. If you don’t know what OCALICON is, well, let me fill you in.  OCALI is the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, and each year for the past 10 years they have held a conference. The conference is three days long and filled with amazing leaders in autism, behavior management, and all sorts of special education best practices and more! If you are lucky enough to every come to the OCALICON jump at the chance! I promise you won’t regret it!

While at the conference, I got a chance to see Brenda Smith Myles. If you don’t know who she is, she holds her doctorate in education, was presented over 500 times, and written more than 150 articles and books on Autism. She was also the co-chair of the National ASD Teacher Standards Committee, and has received many awards for the work that she does.

I was delighted to be able to sit in on her session! She talked about executive functioning, and I gained some good knowledge and techniques I’d like to share with you about it below!  Executive Functioning are sets of skills that everyone uses to organize and act on information.

For Example- You ask a student to go back to his locker and get his assignment book. He leaves and returns with a book, a pencil, and a water bottle. You don’t understand how on earth he managed to leave and return with everything but what you asked him to get!

Want to know how he returned with those items? Well this is what happened in his head?

“I need my assignment book” walks down the hall, walks right past a water fountain. “Oh, I’m thirsty. I need my water bottle” Keeps walking. “getting my water bottle from my locker.”   Keep walking down the hall. He spots a pencil on the floor. Picks it up. “New pencil for me.”  Walking to his locker and finally gets to his locker. “What was I supposed to get?...  I’m thirsty. Water bottle! Wait, I feel like there is something else I was supposed to get. I’m in English. It must have been my book.” He walks back to class. “I’m back. Why doesn’t the teacher look happy?”

The student lacks the ability to organize his thoughts and planning and organizing.
Students with executive functioning issues are likely to have 8 skill deficit areas and may struggle with the following things.

1.    Flexible Thinking -  this allows students to be able to adjust to unexpected events like fire drills, early releases, and a second recess!
2.    Emotional Control – helps students to not overreact in a situation. It helps them keep their feelings in check.

3.    Self-Monitoring – this allows students to look at how they are doing. Students with a weakness in this area may be upset up bad feedback in an area.
4.    Planning and Prioritizing – this helps children set goals and help plan to meet them.
5.    Task Initiation – this helps your student get started on a new task.
6.    Impulse Control – Helps students think about something before they act on it! I have lots of students who struggle with this.
7.    Organization – this helps students keep track of things both in their minds and things in their world.

8.    Working memory – this helps students keep key information in their mind while they carry out a task. Think students who struggle with following directions, even though you’ve told them a 1000 times!

So, what are the tips on ways to improve Executive Functioning in students?

1.    Help Students Work on Visualization Skills
When students read a book or listen to a story, ask them to create pictures in their mind. Or draw pictures. I have my Reading For Sets that I use to work on this. We read the passage, and uses the pictures to sequence the events in the stories in order, then answer the questions that go along with it. This has greatly helped my students with reading.

2.    Have Students Teach Each Other
When a student has to know a concept well enough to teach it to a peer they have to be able to think through HOW they do it in order to teach it the right way to a peer. This lets them start working on information right away in the right way to help both themselves and a peer.

3.    Do the Chunky Monkey!
Okay, well it’s not TECHNICALLY the chunky monkey. But Chunking information is ALWAYS good! Teaching information in small bites makes it easier to remember. Also, using a graphic organizer is a huge help too.

4.    Multi-sensory Magic
Ever had a song stuck in your head? How is it that you can remember the lyrics to every N*SYNC song from 2004 but you can’t remember what you ate last night for dinner. Well using songs, dances, movement of any kind to help teach a concept helps students to better remember what they are learning. I used to teach the ABC’s by writing the letters on paint chips and putting them on the floor. We would then hop around the room saying each letter as we jumped on them. Movement and even singing the ABC’s while we did it!

5.    Connections for Success
Help students connect new concepts to things they have already learned. Making connections with the information will help to grow the student’s abilities to recall information.

I’d love to hear ideas from you on how you help improve your student’s Executive Functioning Skills! 


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