As the new school year approaches, teachers in several districts (Cuba Rushford, Andover, Franklinville, Whitesville, Olean, Fillmore and Cattaraugus – Little Valley) learn the importance of helping students improve a set of thinking skills known as executive function skills. “Human beings have a built in capacity to meet challenges and accomplish goals through the use of high-level cognitive functions called executive skills. These are the skills that help us to decide what activities or tasks we will pay attention to and which ones we’ll choose to do.” (Hart & Jacobs, 1993) These functions are a set of cognitive processes, such as focus, memory and self-control, which enable us to manage information and complete tasks.
CA BOCES provided professional development opportunities for teachers to improve how students learn and develop executive function skills during their K-12 education and beyond. Teachers were informed how to recognize students who struggle with executive weakness, and what strategies can assist students in developing these skills.
Knowing Cognitive Capacities
In order for teachers to target specific executive function skills, they must first be able to identify them. Our teachers researched and developed strategies for the following list of executive function skills:
Teachers reflected on how these skills might exist in the classroom. For example, Students with weak working memory are unable to remember and apply crucial information in order to move to the next step of a task. They often struggle when a task requires them to remember a series of directions, generate ideas in response to the directions and then express their ideas. Information just doesn’t “stick” for them. Once the teacher recognizes a student needs to work on working memory, they can develop a list of strategies to address this learning problem.
Teachers realize it’s important to recognize that the same strategy won’t work for each student. Some students work better with visual cues than verbal cues, for instance. Teachers must differentiate thinking strategies for each student to help them meet full learning potential.
Exercises for Executive Function Skills
There are a number of exercises to help students develop thinking skills. Practices can range from computer games to improve memory skills to physical tasks such as balancing. Here are just a few examples of how teachers in our district have worked with students to improve their executive function skills.
Organization and Planning
Teachers can help students to master these tasks by encouraging students to write down important assignments in a calendar and to allocate time accordingly. Students can be taught how to make lists of homework assignments. Students can be encouraged to use brightly colored folders to take home important papers (like homework and permission slips) to and from school, so those items don’t get lost.
For short-term assignments, encourage students to picture the end result of completing the task and the positive emotion that may be attached to it. Students and teachers can brainstorm ways to make assignments more interesting.
Feeling vocabulary can be taught through books by discussing the feelings the characters had and asking the student to make connections to his own experiences. When the student begins to experience strong emotions, allow them to identify it, validate it and provide a clear direction about what could be done instead of the negative behavior.
When it comes to improving executive function skills during the school day, a step in the right direction is to set up time and programs that are devoted to these strategies. It can take as little as two minutes before class or a full 30-minute session.
The group concluded that students with well-developed executive function skills really hold the foundation to success in school, with their peers, in college and for a career. These skills are what provide individuals with the capacity to meet challenges and accomplish goals! Collaboratively we recognized the responsibility educators have to build these skills in ALL students.
If you are interested in learning more about how to enhance these skills and promoting school and social success for ALL students, please contact CA BOCES (Laurie Sledge at 716-376-8357).
By: Marguerite Andrews and Deanna Wilkinson, CA BOCES Professional Development
Tenth graders from Andover, Belfast, Bolivar-Richburg, Cuba-Rushford, Fillmore, Portville, Scio, and Wellsville explored careers at Alfred State College. Over 40 businesses shared about careers in Allegany County. Student spent the day answering the question, "What's my next step?"
Over the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a mentor for Patrick Coyle as he wrote his way through an online English credit recovery course. Patrick is an intelligent young man who loves fishing, hunting and working on engines. We studied together once or twice a week to help hone his English skills as he worked on his class. Patrick had a study hall set aside for his course, but was also willing to meet me after school to work on specific areas he was struggling to understand.
Jamie is Patrick’s mother and she is rightfully proud of her son and his accomplishments. I got to know them both over the time that I spent at Andover and enjoyed that time immensely. I sat down with Jamie and Patrick at our last tutoring session to find out how they felt about Patrick’s online experience. I wanted to know how Patrick felt as a student taking an online course and how Jamie felt as a parent of a student taking the course. Patrick said, “It was pretty straight forward, not very difficult. It was a lot easier for me to work on my own than it was to sit in a classroom. I’m easily distracted.” He laughed a little then.
“Thinking back, how did you feel about the program going into it?” I asked.
“I wasn’t really sure. I was kind of nervous because I hadn’t really done an online class before. I don’t know. I knew I was going to need help because I usually tend to get off track. I just wasn’t sure about it at first.”
Jamie said almost the same thing when I asked her how she felt as a parent, “I wasn’t sure, going into it. I didn’t know what all it involved.” But as the course progressed and she saw how it worked, she began to really like it. She said, “Well, what I really liked was him being able to do the work here in the computer lab. It was such a help. The biggest benefit for me was being able to do the online part here.”
Patrick said it was beneficial to him for a different reason. He said, “It gave me an opportunity to work on it by myself. Whenever I could work on it, I could go and work on it. It was a lot easier for me to sit at a computer to do it than to sit in a classroom and do it.” He would also recommend it to other students who have a similar learning style – students who are self-motivated, able to push themselves, prefer working at their own pace and are willing to ask for help, if needed.
I then asked them both how they felt about feedback they received from their online teachers and coordinators. Patrick said, “My feedback from my teacher, she always gave me feedback. It would take a day or two, but she always gave me good feedback on what I wrote about. And you always gave me good feedback when we were working and it was always a great help to have you here and help me through this.”
Jamie said, “Yes, I mean with the emails saying this is how he did, he needs to work on this, he needs to add more to this, and you know, with somebody correcting it and then saying, you did well, but it could be better if you do these things, and then he could take that and then add more and take their constructive criticism and build on that to make it a better paper.”
Finally, I asked them whether they would recommend online classes to other students, teachers, and administration and I received a big and wonderful yes. In Jamie’s words, “I would. Actually, administration, the superintendent who is no longer here – he retired last year, he actually suggested it to us because Patrick got hired by BOCES last year to work during the summer and he was so excited about that, so he couldn’t go to summer school and work at BOCES, so the superintendant actually told us about this program. I had no idea. Yes, I would recommend it, especially for someone who has plans for the summer, whether it be a job or traveling or whatever. It worked out great.”
Then Jamie went on to say that the program was very beneficial for Patrick, “I’ve told you that with Patrick getting constructive criticism from you, it meant so much more to him than coming from mom. In the way that you presented it to him, saying, you did good with this, but we need to work on this and here are some suggestions, now you go do it and you take the suggestions and do what you think you need to do. I could see, and my mother-in-law mentioned that she could see, such a difference in Patrick with his self esteem, saying, you know, I can do this. He just has a whole different attitude.”
And that is what online learning opportunities are about – helping students feel successful and achieve their goals.
By: Christina McGee, CA BOCES
Jennifer Smith, Speech Therapist, Andover, collaborates with a very flexible 3rd grade teacher, Faye Shay, to login to the student publishing program, Voicethread, and integrate her custom-designed therapy for one particular student with the whole class of students.
Students practice vocabulary, spelling and creative writing during this lesson on the meaning and use of the word, exaggeration. Ms. Smith had a picture of “Pecos Bill” in the Old West projected on the screen in Voicethread and each student could choose his or her method of commenting on the picture (microphone or typing) and begin a story (an exaggeration) of how the “Andover Ponds” were formed. What Ms. Shay noticed was that the students who have very little to say in class, were very involved and lengthy in their explanations of how the ponds were formed – all based upon background knowledge from class and checked later for spelling and punctuation. Creative stories about the ponds and their formation were anywhere from Pecos Bill lassoing animals to push the dirt away to the digging of holes one after another with intervention from a magical being. Ms. Smith also had the students owning their own learning as she communicated to them and displayed on the big screen how their individual comments come to her in an email from Voicethread.
By: Maggie Jensen, CA BOCES Learning Resources