The Literacy Institute Newsletter:
What Are Executive Functions?
November 2016
Penny Moldofsky, Director of 
The Literacy Institute
Dear Woodlynde Families, Friends, and Colleagues,
Most of you have heard the term "executive functions" and may wonder, "how is this different from a learning difference or a problem with attention?" On November 3, Dr. Cheryl Chase, a psychologist from Cleveland, Ohio, and a nationally recognized speaker on executive functions, clarified executive functions and provided specific strategies for parents and educators for helping students who are coping with executive function deficits. 

Here are some highlights of Dr. Chase's presentation:
  1. Executive functions include a group of cognitive processes that we need for mental and behavioral self control.
  2. Students with executive functioning difficulties know what to do and usually have the skills for the task, but they have trouble putting what they know into action. This is a "doing" problem, not a "learning" problem.
  3. Most executive functions develop in the frontal lobe. Fortunately, our children's frontal lobes keep developing until they are in their late twenties. Parents and teachers can be frontal lobe "supporters" in the meantime.
  4. Using clear, consistent, visual reminders along with repeated, consistent, concrete modeling works over time.
The Big Five
Dr. Chase follows the model of executive functions explained by Dr. Russell Barkley:
  1. Inhibition: the ability to stop and think before acting - the mental stop sign.
  2. Sensing to the Self: the ability to keep nonverbal information (pictures, patterns, time, social cues) in your head so that you can apply them in the tasks you are engaged in now.
  3. Self-speech: the ability to reflect on rules, problem-solving, and how you are doing (this is key for ethical behavior, reading comprehension, math problem solving, and other real-life tasks).
  4. Motivation to the Self (Emotions): the ability to manage feelings to complete activities or reach a goal.
  5. Reconstitution to the Self (Play): the ability to brainstorm new ideas, adapt to new situations, and problem solve.
Ideal Settings
Some students have difficulties with one or two executive functions, but many have difficulty with many or all of these areas, and their difficulties depend on the setting. These students do better in settings that:

Don't overload working memory.
Tools are made available and students are shown and cued to use them with adult guidance and reminders gradually diminishing as students become fluent in using the tool. At home and school, we can provide consistent picture clues, consistent graphic organizers or note-taking forms, consistent schedules, and readily available reference materials. Separate note taking from listening - you may be able to do both simultaneously, but kids with executive functions can't. Don't pass around that cool geode you found in the desert while you are providing information that students need to hear and process. 

Demonstrate again and again using the actual task. 
When teaching new strategies, demonstrate in a step-by-step manner how they are applied in the real-life task you want the student to accomplish. If you show a video on a topic, you first provide the organizer that will help them enter the ideas from the video that they will need for the quiz/test/project. Then, pause the video frequently to demonstrate how to pull the information from the video and where to enter it in the organizer. 

Explicitly teach when, how, and why to use one tool rather than another.

Demonstrate to help students understand when to use detailed notes in a comparison organizer vs. when to jot down a few key words. Demonstrate repeatedly how and when to use a tool like a calculator, a recording pen, or text-to-speech software, and be very clear in showing how each tool works better or not as well for different activities.

Predictable and consistent = reduced stress and anxiety.

When a student with executive function weaknesses feels stressed and overloaded, it is even more difficult to access skills they have practiced. Break down activities that load working memory into small chunks for the student. Have them work toward smaller, single day goals. Post activities in the same place and with the same format so that students don't have to copy or figure out your intentions. The topic and activity can be vivid and riveting, but the format should be predictable.
For more ideas from Dr. Cheryl Chase, visit her website.

Executive functions are the filters or the batteries that fuel and guide productivity. Every parent and every teacher needs to understand how these processes impact each child and how we can incorporate this knowledge into our daily practices.
Penny Moldofsky, M.S.
Director of The Literacy Institute at Woodlynde School
Upcoming Speaker Series Events
All Literacy Institute Speaker Series events are FREE and open to the public.

Thinking Differently: Reframing Learning for a New Generation

Presented by David Flink
Thursday, February 9
7:00 p.m.
Registration opens December 1

Raising Kids to Thrive

Presented by 
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg
April 6 
7:00 p.m.
Registration opens February 1
About The Literacy Institute
The Literacy Institute is one of only six Wilson® Accredited Partner Schools in the country. As such, it provides research-based instruction for Woodlynde students in the Wilson® Reading System as well as high quality professional development for the Woodlynde community and the greater Philadelphia area. Throughout the year, The Literacy Institute offers a free series of nationally-recognized speakers in the field of learning differences for area parents and professionals.
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