In This Issue

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The Relationship between Executive Function Skills and Language

Language is not limited to what we speak and hear. In fact, it plays an integral role in our ability to complete many executive functioning tasks. The relationship between executive functioning and language is reciprocal, meaning each skill set is dependent on the other for success.
While it may not be an obvious connection, language is essential to success in executive function (EF) tasks such as turning in homework on time, morning routines, or following complex directions. In these examples, language serves as our "internal script", guiding us as we monitor, plan, and execute tasks. This internal script is called metacognition. As adults, our internal thought process is natural and automatic. However, for those with EF weaknesses, mental language skills may be underdeveloped.
To illustrate the reciprocal relationship between language and EF skills, let's consider Johnny, a 13 year old student, and how these skills work together in different areas of communication.

APRIL 2018
By Colette Hapi

For students with weaknesses in their executive functions, one of the hardest things about working through word problems in math is comprehending what exactly the problem is asking. Translating the words to numbers and equations can feel overwhelming, and the necessary steps that need to be taken often eludes these students, thereby rendering the task nearly impossible. However, the good news is that all hope is not lost. Even if your child is struggling to properly work through a word problem, there are steps that can be taken to facilitate the process. What follows is a list of steps that are meant to help your child decode word problems and figure out how to properly arrange the pieces of information that were provided into a viable formula. It is important to realize, though, that to really learn "how to do" word problems, a lot of practice is going to be required in order to master the skill.
To help us understand the succeeding steps, we'll be using the following word problem as an example: 331 students went on a field trip to New Mexico. Six buses were filled and the remaining seven students traveled in cars. How many students were in each bus?


The first step to effectively translating and solving word problems is to read the problem in its entirety. It's very important for your child to not try to solve anything when she has only read half a sentence. It's imperative for her to first get a feel for the whole problem and to then try to identify the pieces of information that have been provided as well as what the missing piece is. If she still feels confused, it might help to read the problem multiple times and color code the different pieces of information; she could use a yellow highlighter for the given information and a blue highlighter for the unknown.
For instance, you would highlight the example problem like this: 331 students went on a field trip to New Mexico. Six buses were filled and the remaining seven students traveled in cars. How many students were in each bus?
Highlighting and identifying the given information and the unknowns allows your child to determine what she needs to focus on in order to solve the problem. This step also enables your child to recognize unnecessary information that she does not need in order to solve the problem. 


The second step is to use the highlighted information to make a list of the information available to your child to use in solving the problem and encourage your child to pick variables to stand for the unknowns; on her list, she should clearly label these variables with what they stand for. If necessary, your child can also draw and label pictures. As your child makes this list, have her justify her decisions by explaining how she knows a piece of information is a given and why she has used a certain variable to stand for a particular unknown.
When using our sample problem, your child's list should look something like this:
            Given: # of students on the trip = 331
                        # of buses filled = 6
                       # of students in cars = 7
                       # of students on all buses = Y                     
            Unknown: # of students in each bus = X
Identifying and listing the steps help your child work in an organized manner as she now has all of the pertinent information in one location. Extraneous details that have no bearing on the problemare eliminated with this process, allowing your child to focus on the core information.


The third step is to underline or highlight "key" words. Within each word problem that your child encounters, she'll find that "clues" or certain words have been provided to steer her into the proper direction that indicate certain mathematical operations she needs to utilize. In our example, the key words are each and remaining.
Below is a list of possible keywords that can be found in mathematical word problems: 
  • Addition: increased by, more than, combined, together all indicate the use of addition;
  • Subtraction: decreased by, minus, less, difference between/of, less than, fewer than, left, left over, remaining
  • Multiplication: of, times, multiplied by, product of, increased/decreased by a factor of (this last type can involve both addition or subtraction and multiplication!), twice, triple, each ("they got three each")
  • Division: per, each,  out of, ratio of, quotient of, percent (divide by 100), equal pieces, split, and average
  • Equals: is, are, was, were, will be, gives, yields, sold for, cost
Based on our sample problem, the key words "each" and "remaining" indicate that we will need to use the subtractive and divisive operations in order to solve the problem. 


Having identified the given and the missing pieces of information will make it easier for your child to either identify the equation to be used or figure out the structure of the needed equation for the computation. The key words identified in the last step will help your child put the equation together. In our sample problem, putting the equation together would look like this:
331 students went on a field trip to New Mexico. Six buses were filled and the seven remaining students traveled in cars. How many students were in each bus?
                                  X = Y / 6
Y = 331-7 = 324 students on the buses
                                  X = 324 / 6 = 54 students per bus
Putting the equation together as demonstrated above will allow your child to solve the question posed by the word problem. Your child will use the information from the list she created and plug in the necessary numbers. 


This step can never be overemphasized. After your child gets an answer, she should be sure to test it. She should get into the habit of checking the work by plugging the answers back into the equation to make sure that her answers are accurate. If the result is outrageously high or low, she should retrace her steps and verify where she made a mistake. Many students skip this step but it's imperative for them to check their work because, even if all the steps are executed properly, it's easy to make a computation error along the way. Here's how to check our sample problem:
Y (# of students on the bus) = X * 6 = 54 * 6 = 324

Total # of kids on trip = Y + # of kids in cars = 324 + 7 = 331 students on trip
When checking your work, you essentially work backwards by starting from your last step and using the opposite order of operation. As you work your way back up, you should get the same numbers that you encountered on your way down as you were solving the problem. Checking your work will ensure that you catch the mistakes before it's too late. Math is one of the few classes where your child should be able to leave an exam confidently because she has checked all of her answers and they check out. 


Math can be an overwhelming topic for many, especially students with executive functioning impairment. However, when they are provided with specific guidelines and instructions that they can follow, it should alleviate some of the anxiety they feel when approaching a mathematical word problem. The next time your child tackles a word problem, remind  her to Think Organized!