Last week I had the opportunity to attend a two day seminar by Sarah Ward of Cognitive Connections on Executive Function in Freeport. I’ve always had a general idea of executive function, but this seminar really helped me to understand how EF works, what it is like when someone has weak EF skills, and how to help develop and strengthen those skills.
Executive Function utilizes inhibition and ability to wait, social regulating, and working memory–both nonverbal and verbal. In our modern age, we don’t practice working memory. We don’t need to memorize phone numbers because our phone do the work for us. We don’t exercise our imagination nearly as much either- games, toys and apps do the imagining for us. A core skill of EF is to run mental trial and error simulations–if____then_____. People with strong executive function skills can visualize what it looks like to be done with a task. They can use past memories to deal with novel situations by saying, this is the same, but different.
One thing that really struck me was the normal developmental range for being able to hold images and see into the future. This impacts your ability to plan and execute projects and to delay gratification.
2 year old: now
3-5 year old: 5-20 minutes
1st grader: several hours
3rd grader: 8-12 hours
12-16 year old: 2-3 days
17-23 years old: 2-3 weeks
23-35 years old: 3-5 weeks
Executive function skills are not fully developed until about 23 years old. If someone has ADHD, they will have an executive function developmental delay, typically about 3 years behind their chronological age.
This really stuck me. I teach high school and will frequently have assignments, especially ones with several parts, due in long range. And then I get frustrated that my students are leaving it until the night before when they’ve had a week or more to do it? My expectations are not developmentally appropriate.
Not only are my expectations not appropriate, but I’ve additionally set my students up for failure because I have not given them tools or strategies to tackle the task. This was another thing that really stuck with me from the workshop; the “Get ready *Do*Done” strategy. It’s a way of backward planning.
First, ask yourself, what does “done” look like? When I’ve completed this task, what will that look like? Someone with strong EF skills can do this pretty easily. Someone with weak skills struggles, or just plain has no idea. We need to help them understand what done looks like. Mentor texts/models are so important here. Someone with weak EF skills can’t visualize it. They need a picture to match. An actual photograph works really well for this. Then you can break that whole down to the parts needed. That’s the “Do” stage. What do I need to do to recreate the “Done”? And then the “Get Ready” identifies the materials or skills needed. At this point you’re ready to execute forward and actually do the task. This method works with everything from getting ready to leave in the morning to completing assignments.
At the workshop we took actual assignments that students brought to her and went through the process. As a teacher, I realized the importance of using this method when I plan out assignments. If I take an assignment through this process, it will help me to create more realistic and clear directions. If I teach all my students to approach projects/tasks with this process, it makes things much more manageable.
My second large take away was regarding the use of time. I’ll address that in another post.