April 1, 2017
Teachers Talk - What Executive Functioning Can Do For You!
Anthea Rippin, Teacher, Deer Lake SDA School, Burnaby, BC

We’ve all had those students.  You know who I’m talking about … that student who is still talking after you have asked him to be quiet 46 times, the girl who has lost her permission slip no less than 5 times, or how about the arguer who JUST CAN’T GIVE IT UP…EVER, and, of course, the kid that is a day late, ten dollars short, and can’t figure out why you are upset so upset about it!
 
All of these issues can fall under the heading of executive functioning.  Who knew that your prefrontal cortex was so important!  This part of your brain has been likened to the CEO of a very important business (that would be your life)—it is the part of your brain that helps you make plans and decisions, problem solve, analyze ideas, sort through how to get help that you need, and control inhibition.
 
I did some investigation in this area and I believe it is extremely critical for educators to understand the implications of having executive dysfunction.   
 
Conclusively, here is what I’ve found:  
1)  Your ADHD/LD/ASD kids will likely all have trouble with EF,
2)  it is a spectrum kind of issue—“normal” kids can struggle too,
3)  kids with struggles in this area simply can’t always do what you’re asking them (but there is help),
4)  it’s genetic (apple/tree anyone?)  
5)  stress, social alienation, and sadness exacerbate this problem, and
6)  there’s help!  (neuroscientists are discovering just how plastic our brains are!).
 
We are living in a day and age where we are busier, more distracted, over-scheduled, and more-connected-but-not-really-connected than ever.  I believe this is affecting the brains of our kids.   The good news is that as Adventist educators, we have a whole book of inspired thought that I believe can help us help our kids!
As I navigated the latest research on EF, I discovered some general principles that we need to keep coming back to:
 
  1. Nature has an important role in helping children self-regulate (Translated:  If a child is struggling with EF-related problems, spend as much time outdoors as possible).
  2. God created us to be attached to Him and to one another.  Sin has disrupted this and continues to wreak havoc in our ability to find peace and calmness in our relationships.  People who struggle with EF need strong attachments.  If parents aren’t able to provide this for children, a teacher can have a very stabilizing influence on a child.
  3. When disciplining children, it is so important for us to be patient, kind, and loving.  When a student unequivocally knows that you love them, half of your battle is fought.  E.G. White has so much to share about how we should discipline kids and often it is our kids who have EF deficits are the ones who end up on the receiving end of disciplinary action.  They need the most loving support!
  4. We must consider developmentally appropriate practices.  E.G. White suggests that children should not be engaged in highly academic work at a young age.  Adele Diamond is a prominent researcher on EF and her work has led her to conclude that students need oral language rather than literacy skills when they are beginning school and that our focus with young children must be on play and hands-on learning.
  5. If children can be engaged in musical pursuits, daily exercise and well-rounded physical endurance, it will enhance their EF skills.
In addition to these general principles, I encourage you to try these simple steps that will help all of your students:
  1. Set up a very clear communication system between student, parent and teacher.
  2. Ensure that a student is feeling socially supported and address any issues of anxiety and depression that you may note.
  3. Teach students some self-monitoring strategies will help with learning.
  4. Take advantage of technology. There are apps for things such as anxiety management, time management, and other areas that EF touches on.
Additional Resources I would encourage you to check out:
 
Excellent website for additional strategies and supports:
https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/partnering-with-childs-school/instructional-strategies/at-a-glance-classroom-accommodations-for-executive-functioning-issues
 
Adele Diamond’s Tedx Talk:
http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Turning-some-Ideas-on-their-Hea
 
Books:
Daniel Siegel, Whole Brain Child
Gabor Mate, Scattered Minds
Gordon Neufeld, Hold on to Your Kids
Peg Dawson, Coaching Kids with Executive Skills Deficits
Ross Greene, Lost at School