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Are your Student’s Difficulties in School a Result of Executive Function Deficits?

By Cynthia Nagrath
Are your Student’s Difficulties in School a Result of Executive Function Deficits?

The International Educator talks with leading educational expert, Dr. George McCloskey at the Cape Cod Institute to understand how teachers can help students perform better in the classroom.
Do you have a student in your class who is regularly involved in behavioral incidents? Or a child who is under performing and not achieving his or her potential? Perhaps inconsistency is an issue for that child, with high test scores in some subjects with certain teachers, and low, or even failing grades, in others. Or perhaps it’s the time-honored homework battle – he or she fails to write down the assignment, complete the homework, or even if she does get it done, somehow she does not manage to turn it in. If any of these scenarios are familiar to you, then your student could have executive function difficulties.
What is Executive Function?
Executive functioning is a term psychologists use to describe the many tasks our brains perform that are involved with planning, problem-solving and the very act of thinking itself. It is believed that the executive functions of the brain are primarily carried out in the pre-frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex which is the part of the brain that directs or conducts a number of skills required in daily life, such as planning, decision-making, self-monitoring/regulation, working memory, motivation and the entire problem-solving process along with self evaluation of the results. Often thought of as the CEO of the brain, or the conductor of the orchestra, executive function is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action and as a result can have a major impact on student behavior and performance.
“Executive function kids are coming to us not because they haven’t learned, but they haven’t produced,” says George McCloskey, Ph.D., Professor and Director of School Psychology Research at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “The only way we know if you have learned is if you can demonstrate it,” explains McCloskey who is considered an expert on Executive Function and the learning brain and regularly consults with school districts and students in several states on issues related to improving students’ self-regulation capacities in the classroom and at home.
What is an Executive Function Disorder?
Executive Function disorders or deficiencies can be present in people with no diagnosable disability, or with individuals across a wide spectrum of conditions. EF problems are found with nearly all clinical diagnoses such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, oppositional and conduct disorders, and those found on the autism spectrum such as Asperger’s Syndrome. The most common disorder associated with Executive Function deficit is ADD/ADHD. The overarching theme is that self regulation is very difficult for those with ED deficiencies. For example, with ADHD, the three hallmark features are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity – the perfect storm of behaviors that often get kids in trouble at school.
Trouble in School
Students with Executive Function deficits such as ADHD, in addition to being hyperactive, typically have difficulty paying attention and lack the ability to focus on tasks or activities for a sustained length of time. It is common for students with ADD to find difficulty finishing schoolwork or tasks that require concentration, and they easily get bored or distracted by external stimuli or their own thoughts. For these students, there is a tendency to rush through assignments, making careless mistakes and all too often, they fail to check their work. These are the kids who are the first to hand in their test papers eager to complete the unpleasant task and get it over with. Procrastination, forgetfulness and disorganization are also common ADD traits which lead to poor performance in school. The impulsivity piece presents more behavior problems because these students tend to be impatient, commonly blurting out answers before questions are asked, and making inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. Teachers often say they have “no filters” because they say whatever comes to mind, and often have difficulty waiting their turn with frequent interrupting and irritating of others.
Naturally, these behaviors produce a negative reaction from teachers and peers, which often can lead to oppositional and emotional outbursts from the student, further creating problems and intensifying the situation. McCloskey has advice for teachers in these emotionally charged situations, “When a student is being oppositional and arguing he is not rational. Wait until he calms down before you try to communicate or correct the behavior because when you’re emotionally distraught, your mind shuts down.”
In addition to behavioral issues, academic difficulties arise because executive functions are inextricably woven into the act of reading, according to McCloskey, and reading forms the very foundation of learning and school performance. “Reading is a very complex process,” says McCloskey. “Think of the act of reading for a child as if he’s holding a handful of helium-filled balloons. If he can’t effortlessly coordinate all the skills needed – something goes. The EF piece in reading is putting all the pieces together, or juggling all the balloons without letting any float away,” said McCloskey.
How Teachers Can Help Students with EF Issues?
The good news is that cognitive strategies, such as planning and organizing, can be taught according to McCloskey, “Executive awareness is awareness of awareness.” Or put another way, “Are you aware of needing to be aware and why?” The student should be aware that he or she has EF difficulties and should be taught strategies to cope and compensate for any deficits. If the child is not aware of this he does not know how to modulate himself and he keeps getting into trouble,” warns McCloskey. He describes a situation where he was in a meeting with a student for whom he was advocating and the Vice Principal told the student, “If you do this again, you’ll be expelled.” “Expel him right now!” was McCloskey’s response to a shocked Vice Principal. “Don’t waste everybody’s time, because without appropriate interventions and strategies for teaching him how to avoid these reactions in the future, he most certainly will repeat the offending behavior.”
Create a Student-Driven Behavior Plan
A common remedy is to have the school create a behavior plan to make clear for the student expectations and consequences. “The problem with a lot of behavior plans,” McCloskey informs the room full of teachers and school psychologists, “is that the teacher is performing all the EF roles because the teacher is doing all the work and the student is merely a passive recipient.” This seems to work well when the teacher manages the plan well, but all too often, the student changes classes and his or her behavior falls apart because the next teacher does not know how, or bother, to implement the plan effectively. The solution, advises McCloskey, is to increase student awareness of self-regulation expectations and goals, along with insight into his or her own personal self regulation strengths and weaknesses. “You have to say, we want you to get there – here are our expectations and here are the goals, otherwise you’re just pulling their strings,” said McCloskey. The most effective behavior plan is one that teaches the student to self-regulate because if a child doesn’t know how to modulate himself, he keeps getting into trouble. “Teachers need to learn to help students develop their own pre-frontal lobes,” advises McCloskey.
Another recommendation McCloskey offers is to video tape the student. “It may sound extreme,” he admits, “but it’s an eye-opening experience because often kids are not aware of how they’re behaving and how their actions affect others.” Seeing themselves played-back on video can actually be shocking for them and a good motivator to work on self-regulating strategies to change their behavior, advises McCloskey.
Split the Class
McCloskey also calls for a classroom structured differently. Instead of the traditional grouping based on reading, math or academic ability, McCloskey recommends dividing the class into three groups: 1.) those who are high level self-regulators, 2.) those with moderate self-regulating capacities, and 3.) low self-regulators who need greater levels of supervision. “This division allows the teacher to focus more on the students who need constant reinforcement of goals and continual feedback so they can monitor their own progress. The first group, regardless of the various academic levels within it, can get to where they need to be and surpass the ‘teach-to- the-middle’ approach common in most classrooms,” contends McCloskey. The teacher can prompt these students on what they need to be learning and allow them to pursue independent study through online tutorials and independent reading. In this scenario, McCloskey says that the students who are high self-regulators are challenged and often speed past the typical curriculum pacing which would ordinarily hold them back because they would be stuck waiting while the teacher is addressing behavior issues with the low self-regulators.
Make Tests Fair
Here’s a tale of two students. The teacher tells the class we’ve covered a lot of material over the past few weeks so on Friday we’ll have a test on chapters four, five and six. Student number one, Johnny, goes home and studies, reading all the chapters, highlighting key areas, and taking notes of the material covered in the chapters. Student # 2, Bobby, does nothing. Johnny fails and Bobby aces the test. Perplexed and frustrated, Johnny says to Bobby, “How did you do it? I know you didn’t read!” Bobby replies, “I read the teacher.” What do you mean?” asks a puzzled Johnny. “The teacher never tests on the chapters,” explains Bobby, “She goes by class discussion, and I just looked at my notes.”
McCloskey tells this story to illustrate the fact that many students are penalized academically, not because they don’t understand or have mastered the content, but because the tests are more about executive function and how to read the instructor. McCloskey calls these tests executive function traps. These are the tests that penalize the taker for not following instructions such as circling versus underlining, vocabulary word scrambles, hidden puzzles, or any sort of format designed to throw students off. “When students prepare for material, but not format, they often under-perform or even fail,” says McCloskey. He compares these tricky tests to the Wisconsin Card Sort that’s administered on a commonly used IQ test. These are tricky tests because there’s no clear direction, and the test taker is often left wondering if she is doing it correctly. McCloskey has a warning to teachers: “Don’t Wisconsin Card Sort your students!”
Instead, McCloskey recommends that students be prepared for the format before the test so they know what to expect and so that they have the opportunity to demonstrate their content knowledge. He likens the mental process to opening a junk drawer. If you’re looking for something it will take more time and effort because you have to rummage through the drawer to find it. To complicate things further, imagine opening up that junk drawer from the unfamiliar opposite side -- it’s even more disorienting and difficult to find things. “That’s what you’re doing when you give kids with EF deficiencies an unfamiliar test format,” according to McCloskey who has over 25 years of experience designing tests such WISC-IV and Wechsler (WAIS) Tests, the most commonly utilized IQ and cognitive ability tests in the U.S. Following that analogy, McCloskey contrasts that scenario to looking in an organized drawer where everything has its place and opens from one predictable side only. This allows for quicker and easier retrieval of the desired item. It’s the same with the mental process of retrieving and displaying information for a test, and ultimately, it gives a better assessment of a student’s content knowledge.
McCloskey asks the participants the question: “When someone fails a test, what’s the first thing you do?” “RETEST!” is the answer, which he shouts for emphasis. “Don’t assume it’s the student, maybe the test sucks!” he says to a room full of educators, who respond with laughter.
Let’s hope they take his advice, otherwise for students, unfortunately, the joke’s on them.
The Cape Cod Institute, now in its 33rd year, is a unique summer-long learning program designed for health, education and management professionals from across the US and Canada seeking to enhance their practice and stay current in their fields. The institute features top, nationally-recognized leaders in the fields of psychology, education, and therapeutic practice who share with participants the latest research, techniques, and best practices to offer world-class professional development opportunities in a relaxing casual atmosphere near the Cape Cod National Seashore. For more information please go to:

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