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The Preview: Education

Improve students' flexibility, organization, and behavior with these executive function-friendly tips

Group of diverse students wearing backpacks with arms around each other, smiling
You may be surprised by the progress your students make

Teachers hear a lot of discussion about adapting the general curriculum for students with disabilities, but what about the other way around? Have you ever been coached on how to adapt techniques designed for students with disabilities, in the general classroom?

Even if you don't have a child diagnosed with a disability in your class, you are likely to have students who struggle with some of the same learning difficulties as, say, children with autism. Being aware of techniques that help children with autism can enable you to help other students not on the spectrum who are affected by similar issues such as flexibility and organization. Students who wilt under the lecture-from-the-front-of-the-class model of instruction may come to life when their teachers incorporate techniques designed for children who are predominantly kinesthetic or visual learners.

Try applying some of these principles geared to students with disabilities and you may be surprised by the postive changes you begin seeing in all your students.

1. Teach flexibility
2. Dispel the "myth of laziness"
3. Break projects down into manageable steps
4. Motivate with multisensory approaches

Teach flexibility

Students with autism tend to be disorganized regarding school materials, homework, and personal articles at home; they also have trouble seeing the big picture and organizing their thinking. These issues are expressions of difficulty with executive functioning—a set of neurodevelopmental skills that enable students to regulate their behavior and carry out goal-directed behavior.

Specific executive functions include:

  • inhibition (or impulse control)
  • flexibility
  • working memory (holding information in mind long enough to be able to complete a task)
  • organization (keeping track of materials and being able to see the big picture)
  • planning
  • self-monitoring

One of the executive function characteristics that interferes most with students' academic and social success is flexibility.

Flexibility is what enables individuals to generate new ways to solve a problem, adapt to changes in routines, and adjust to the unexpected. Even students not diagnosed as on the autism spectrum may struggle with biologically based rigidity and inflexibility. Teachers should be alert to students who struggle with

  • making transitions during the day
  • tolerating changes in schedules or routines
  • adjusting to changes in staff
  • generating new ways to approach a problem
  • accepting flexible interpretations of rules or events
  • managing an intense emotional feeling
  • responding to the needs or interests of friends
  • negotiating with others
  • accepting differing viewpoints

To help students improve flexibility, the authors of Unstuck and On Target!—a new executive function curriculum for students on the spectrum—advise teachers not only to explictly teach students what flexibility is, but also to have them practice it over and over again. In this way, teaching flexibility is not unlike coaching a child in athletic skills or teaching a child to play an instrument: As students repeatedly practice the skills, they build their adaptive ability just as they would build their athletic or musical ability.

For an example of how to teach and reinforce flexibility, download this Big Deal/Little Deal lesson from Unstuck and On Target!. With repeated opportunities to develop their judgment of what is a big deal and what is not, students will learn to

  1. avoid negative behaviors when staff need to move beyond a matter that is truly unimportant
  2. avoid negative interactions with students over minor provocations
  3. generate a repair for the situation, and
  4. engage in something important that they would prefer not to do

Dispel the "myth of laziness"

When most educators think of executive function weaknesses, they typically focus on such elements as workspace and materials organization ("His backpack resembles a black hole and his locker is a disgrace"), task planning and completion, and preparing for tests ("Carol says that she never studies for tests because she can never find her study materials, which is probably true—she loses everything").

"Probably the greatest value in recognizing the neurodevelopmental/neurocognitive domain called executive functioning is to protect a sizable minority of children from being traumatized by what amounts to adult name-calling."
—Martha Denckla

It's tempting to think that students with these types of organization or production deficits are just being "lazy" or "careless." But Christopher Kaufman, author of Executive Function in the Classroom, urges educators to "beware the 'myth of laziness.'" Instead of assuming that students are essentially choosing these difficulties, teachers should consider the distinction between deficits of skill versus deficits of will.

Most children genuinely want to succeed in school—the hassles for "underachieving" children from parents and teachers are many. Once students are helped past the executive skill weaknesses that can make the organization of materials and tasks such a challenge, their academic self-image tends to surge upward, resulting in thoughts such as, "Maybe I'm not such a bad student after all. I can actually do this stuff."

Break projects down into manageable steps

In Executive Function in the Classroom, Kaufman provides teachers with strategies that help students overcome their challenges. One area that is a particular struggle for students with executive function weaknesses is the completion of long-term class projects. To improve students' chance for success, Kaufman recommends the following strategies:

  • Limit or carefully structure topic choices – When faced with a potentially endless series of topics for a research paper or project, many students become so bogged down in the decision-making process that several days or sometimes weeks go by before they are able to choose a focus. To minimize the time and energy devoted to topic selection, either limit the topic choices available to them ("You must do your biography paper on one of these three people") or carefully structure/support the topic selection process so that it does not stymie them from moving on to subsequent project elements.

  • Turn potential mountains into a series of molehills – Students with executive function weaknesses may see tasks as insurmountable. To keep students engaged in larger assignments, keep their task-related frustration and anxiety to a minimum by structuring the assignment steps in such a way that each element is experienced as small and doable. This method allows the student to keep checking steps off as completed and, in so doing, to build a sense of project mastery ("Hey, I thought this research paper was going to be horrible, but I'm already halfway done. Maybe I'll get this finished on time after all").

  • Be specific about project steps and deadlines – Take the time-management aspects of longer-term assignments out of students' hands. Rather than vague spoken reminders ("And don't forget to keep working on your Africa projects"), it is far more helpful for students to be given very specific project-step instructions linked to specific deadlines. The teacher might say, "Michael, the notecard step of the Africa project should take you about a week. To make sure you're making good progress, let's get started on it today, you and me, during independent work time at the end of the period. Then I want you to bring me five more completed note cards on your topic this Wednesday and five more next Monday. Let's get that written down in your assignment book, and I'll send your Mom a quick e-mail to let her know the plan."

  • Provide lots of individualized project coachingOn your own is a death knell to students with executive function deficits. Although it is clearly essential that teachers work to build students' independent planning, organization, and task completion skills, the least effective way of doing so is to simply insist they do longer-term projects at the same level of independence as most classmates. (Many middle school teachers insist students work more independently just at the time when organizational demands increase tenfold; by having students break projects down into manageable steps, you are helping them develop the skills that will enable them to work independently, successfully, in the long run.)

  • Complete a structured project planning form – The most practical way of developing the executive skills of students is to build practice right into the regular curriculum. Teaching methods that target the needs of students with executive struggles end up improving the project planning and time management skills of all students. Project planning forms can be helpful ways of ensuring that everyone in a class is making reasonable and timely progress toward the completion of long-term assignments. A form that requires frequent contact between the teacher and students increases the likelihood that children with executive function weaknesses demonstrate their progress on a regular basis and receive the coaching they need as they move from step to step.

Get guidance on these and more explicit strategies from Executive Function in the Classroom that will help you build students' organization, study, and time management skills.

Motivate with multisensory approaches

(Running time: 6:26:27)

(Having trouble viewing the clip?
Download Apple QuickTime for free.)

In "You're Going to Love This Kid!", her new professional development DVD for teachers in inclusive classrooms, autism advocate Paula Kluth emphasizes that the strategies presented are not just for students with autism.

Watch these excerpts from the DVD demonstrating the benefits to all students when teachers make a point of

  • "getting it off the page"
  • becoming aware of sensory sensitivities, and
  • using visual supports

Understanding sensory sensitivities, for instance, may give a teacher a clue about a child's perplexing behavior. Incorporating instruction that gets students up and moving (not just glued to a textbook in their seats) keeps kinesthetic learners engaged. And students who are not auditory learners absorb their lessons better when augmented by visual supports and reminders.

Using the visual supports mentioned in the clip above can take the guesswork out of what's expected of students and what's coming next.

For more ideas of visual supports you can employ to give students a better sense of control, try this list from Travis Thompson's Freedom from Meltdowns.

You may not have a student in your class who has been diagnosed with a disability but you may well have students who struggle with similar learning difficulties. Try one of these strategies in your classroom today and create an environment that's conducive to learning for everybody!

This article features excerpts and downloads from the following resources:

Unstuck and On Target! An Executive Function Curriculum to Improve Flexibility for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Research Edition

Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students

"You're Going to Love This Kid!" A Professional Development Package for Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom

Freedom from Meltdowns: Dr.Thompson's Solutions for Children with Autism

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