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Executive Functioning and Distance Learning: Part II

Distance learning has been hard on everyone, but even more so for families dealing with the challenges associated with executive dysfunction. In part one, we discussed the basic background of executive functioning skills, the effects of having executive dysfunction, and the way in which educators can implement strategies even during hybrid or distance learning. Now it is time to look at executive dysfunction from the parent perspective. What does it look like at home, outside of the classroom or separate from academic tasks? What are some strategies and methods parents can implement at home to help children who struggle with executive functioning?

 

Executive dysfunction in the everyday

Deficits in executive functioning are sometimes more subtle when children are at home or not engaged in a learning task. This is why executive dysfunction is easier to spot from an educational or clinical perspective. For parents, it may seem like your child is constantly interrupting you or trying to talk over others. This might not indicate a lack of manners. It could, in fact, be associated with a lack of executive functioning skills. Impulse control, thinking before acting, and processing someone else’s words before responding are all skills attributed to executive functioning.

 

Similarly, if you notice that your child has difficulty retaining one or two instructions at a time, or if she cannot follow directions that she has just heard or read, then she may be experiencing some form of executive dysfunction. What seems like a disregard for rules or instructions could actually be an attentive issue and/or an issue involving working memory, both of which are associated with executive functioning.

 

A child may also struggle with following processes, even after repetition or reminders. Furthermore, metacognitive skills, such as learning how to study, learning how to take notes, and knowing how to synthesize new information with prior knowledge, can also be a struggle for children with executive dysfunction. However, there are methods that parents can use at home to help strengthen these necessary skills.

 

Strategies to use at home

Model certain processes for your child and provide him with visual reminders. For example, if you are encouraging your middle schooler to start doing his/her own laundry, help him/her through the process by doing it together the first few times. Talk and walk them through the steps very specifically and consider using labeled and categorized sorting bins to remind them to separate whites from darks. Put a sticker or little post-in note in the laundry room as a reference for how to set the machine for certain loads. Use specific, ordered language when walking them through the process, such as “first, next, finally or last.” Any process, whether it’s laundry, getting ready for bed, or getting dressed in the morning should be modeled, specific, and consistent.

 

The level of support that you need to provide to your child with the above-mentioned processes should be tapered over time. You may need to actually do the laundry while they watch, initially. Then, slowly withdraw your level of support as they get comfortable completing the task independently. 

 

When your child makes a mistake, use it as a teachable moment. Without scolding, talk through their thought process—or lack thereof—and ask them specifically how they could have gone about things differently. Consider providing your own example of a time you did something similar and how you fixed the problem. Children with executive dysfunction should see that everyone struggles and faces challenges, but that growth involves using those errors as learning experiences. Ask metacognitive questions like: What made you do that? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you react that way? How could you have done it or reacted differently? What did you learn or realize from this? Give him time to process and ponder these questions.

Inject some fun into the challenge of developing or strengthening executive functioning by incorporating age-appropriate games, activities, or challenges. Matching games are great for developing working memory. Other card games help children practice impulse control, rule following, strategizing, organizing, and quick-response. Parents can also use music to help foster executive functioning skills. Use songs that have repetitive sections or songs that can be sung in rounds to practice coordination on a more complex level. Singing in rounds also prompts children to practice listening and using working memory. I Spy and word searches help children work on selective attention and practice reducing visual distractions.

Executive Functioning & Distance Learning: Part I

As educators and mental health professionals, helping students manage their executive functioning is a critical aspect of building the foundation for academic, social, and emotional success. For neuroatypical students, particularly those with ASD and ADHD, addressing executive functioning skills within the classroom setting is already challenging enough. However, with current hybrid models and distance learning, these students are struggling even more to adapt. 

 

Background info for educators 

Executive functioning is often thought of as the “management center of the brain” or the control center of thinking. Our executive functioning assists with many different cognitive skills, which is why it not only impacts students academically, but also socially, emotionally, and physically. Some skills associated with executive functioning include: attentiveness, self-monitoring and regulating, emotional/impulse control, organizational skills, ability to prioritize, perspective taking, and planning/chunking larger tasks into smaller pieces. Many of these skills help us to perform tasks throughout our entire lives. Therefore, executive dysfunction can have a lifelong impact on students beyond their capabilities in the classroom.  

 

What does executive dysfunction look like?

Difficulties concerning executive functioning vary from person to person and also differ in severity. Common examples of ways in which students exhibit executive dysfunction include:

  • Avoiding tasks or struggling to initiate an assignment 
  • Procrastinating; trouble with managing time
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks or steps in a process
  • Misplacing things
  • Struggling to put thoughts on paper; difficulty explaining oneself
  • Difficulty transitioning between tasks or moving from one activity to another
  • May struggle to follow directions or to complete steps in chronological order
  • May exhibit a preoccupation with a small detail of the task; i.e. missing the big picture
  • Difficulty with working memory; they may forget what they heard or read
  • May struggle when schedules, rules, procedures, or expectations change; i.e. exhibit a level of inflexibility when they’ve become used to a certain routine

 

Providing assistance with these struggles in the classroom is much easier; educators are physically there in person to alleviate issues and help students to troubleshoot their individual challenges. In the classroom, we have the ability to personally connect with students and provide them with necessary supports and accommodations, like check-ins, checklists, organizers, etc. Now, with distance learning, students with executive dysfunctions are not necessarily getting the same level of support and attention. We can fix this, however, with a little creativityand a lot of patience!

 

Strategies for teachers during distance learning  

Here are a few tips for supporting students with executive functioning issues:

  • Assess: Take inventory of your students’ needs and tendencies. I began the school year by asking every student which part of the writing process he/she hates the most. Do they struggle to begin writing? Drafting? Organizing a cohesive argument/essay? Revising? Getting thoughts down on paper? For students who said that they find it difficult to get started, I provided several supports.

 

  • Model: Firstly, every writing task that I ask students to do, I also complete and spend one class period reading my draft and discussing my writing process. Seeing an example of what the final task should look like is beneficial for all students, but especially those who struggle to initiate writing and to see the big picture. During this “modeled writing session,” I ask students to tell me what they notice about the sample. Their answers provide me with insight into how they interpret the assignment, which allows me to see who really needs greater scaffolds and who does not. 

 

  • Specify: Secondly, when students disclose that getting ideas onto paper is their greatest challenge, I provide them with very specific, thoroughly broken down organizers with sentence starters. This removes the “getting started” barrier and gives them a jumpstart to initiate the task with some momentum. 

 

  • Organize: Finally, for my students who struggle to piece together their writing (organize and revise), I find it helpful to color-coordinate the different aspects of the essay or paragraph. For example, I may highlight students’ thesis statements in red, transition words in blue, evidence/quotes in green, and analysis in orange. When reading through a student’s draft, I can easily direct them to certain sections with specific instructions to add more orange, for instance. This tells them immediately that their paper is lacking sufficient analysis. It also tells them where that analysis or orange should be placed so that the guesswork is gone.

 

  • Check-in: Another best practice that we regularly use in the classroom is to chunk larger assignments and include check-ins throughout the project or essay. With distance learning, I’ve found that breakout rooms in Zoom allow for me to specifically check in with each student during a writing work session. The platform allows students to share their screen with me 1:1 so that I can check their progress individually. This practice also allows me to see who is far behind in terms of completion. The check-ins prompt students to set small goals while working, but they also allow enough time for me to intervene if a task looks like it’s falling to the wayside.

The Juggling Act: Executive Functioning Help

One of the more common stressors that parents and students are experiencing with the new distance learning initiatives involves organization. Since students are no longer getting daily, face-to-face instruction, and academic and behavioral supports are likely inconsistent, many executive functioning skills that students would typically acquire and practice in school have been left by the wayside. To add insult to injury, at-home learning, as we’ve begun to realize, requires a great deal of time management, organization, flexibility, task initiation, prioritizing, and self-monitoring on behalf of the student. It is as though we have suddenly removed the training wheels and encouraged students to try mountain biking!

With rotating schedules, office hours, Zoom meetings, email check-ins, daily assignments, and weekly tasks for each subject area, not to mention that these are posted to various online platforms, it is no wonder that parents and students are feeling the stress of juggling so many components. There are strategies, however, that parents and children can begin to employ to help ease the stress and flex their executive functioning muscles!

 

  • Write out a clear, color-coded weekly schedule and post it where all members of the household can view it. Below is a sample for what an elementary or middle school weekly schedule might look like:

 

Monday/Wed AM
  • Review all course announcements, posts, updates (15 mins)
  • Write due dates for each subject area in agenda book (10 mins)
  • Daily reading assignment (20 mins)
PM
  • Zoom/office hours for English & Math (50 mins)
  • Independent work time (60 mins)
  • Review HW and email questions to yourself to ask during next office hours (30 mins)
Tuesday/Thurs AM
  • Check email (10 mins)
  • Daily reading assignment (20 mins)
  • Independent work time (60 mins; use agenda to prioritize)
PM
  • Zoom/office hours for Science & History (50 mins)
  • Check agenda for upcoming HW/tasks (10 mins)
  • Independent work time (30 mins)
  • Art, music, language, leisure activity (30 mins)

 

Friday AM
  • Review completed work; submit anything due (15 mins)
  • Daily reading assignment (20 mins)
  • Check email (10 mins)
PM
  • Zoom with study buddy (30 mins)
  • Independent work time (60 mins)
  • Organize materials for next week (20 mins)

 

  • To help with the initial creation of the schedule, parents should reach out to teachers about the approximate time that their child should be working on the course content per day. Of course, this will vary from time to time; however, the key to building a routine is to set the expectations and stick to them. This includes expected timelines for working during the day.
  • If parents believe that their child is spending too much time in front of a screen or is struggling to complete work in a reasonable amount of time, they should reach out to the content teacher.
  • Another important detail that parents and students will find helpful is to jot down where each course will be posting their updates and materials. Since some teachers are using Canvas or MyMCPS, while others are using Google Classroom or Padlet, simply finding the work can become a task in itself. To stay sane, keep a running post-it note inside the child’s agenda book or on the back of the weekly schedule. On the post-it should be each teacher’s name, course, preferred platform for instruction, and email address.
  • In addition to the post-it cheat sheet for finding materials, parents can help ease transition times between activities by bookmarking crucial websites with their kids.
  • To help with time management and prioritizing work, at the start of each week parents should encourage children to consider which tasks will be most difficult and/or time consuming. This allows students to begin to see how prior planning can help alleviate unnecessary stress from procrastination or task-avoidance.
  • By writing tasks and due dates in an agenda book, students are enacting executive functioning skills on several different levels. First, the act of writing out each assignment helps to solidify the information into one’s working memory. Secondly, the visual schedule of due dates helps students anticipate priorities and plan appropriately. Finally, when finished with a task, students should check off or cross out the completed assignment. This becomes a satisfying method for self-monitoring one’s progress throughout the week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. I

Visualization as a learning strategy is most commonly seen in the language arts department. Teachers may prompt students to visualize what is happening in the text to boost comprehension and recall before, during, and after reading. This is a proven, worthwhile technique, especially for struggling readers and those with attention difficulties. However, there are numerous other ways in which educators can use visualization and visual tools to enhance learning opportunities that span far beyond the “try to picture or visualize what is happening” cue.

 

Visual Awareness

Some students, especially those with attentive or behavioral issues, often find that they are most successful when educational tasks encourage the use of spatial areas of the brain, as opposed to linguistic areas. To initiate visualization processes, teachers and parents can practice many different strategies, across any content area.

 

Math

Because mathematics can often involve complex, abstract, nebulous concepts and values, even grasping a math question can be daunting, especially for people who struggle to tap into their “math brains,” like myself. For instance, questions involving exponents, decimals, and measurements, can be very intimidating. Students may not know where to begin when working with what they believe to be ambiguous concepts or terminology.

 

  • Accompany measurements, whether weight, height, temperature, density, etc., with familiar, tangible comparisons. For example, if the question involves calculating the area of a surface, provide visual context by telling students that the surface would be about the size of a tennis court, classroom tile, standard doorway, etc. On assessments, consider providing images to represent that object, as opposed to just the calculations or measurements. If asking students about three-dimensional objects, prompt them to picture an everyday object that represents the size and shape.
  • Provide learners with opportunities to conceptualize number functions in different ways. For example, understanding exponents, like 2 to the 8th power, might leave young learners scratching their heads. If teachers provide visual context or long-written forms, students can better prepare to grapple with the task. Even a simple visual process, such as writing out the simplified exponent, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, and then grouping them while multiplying, can assist with the otherwise unfamiliar concept.
  • Post visuals around the classroom of commonly used terminology. Especially for younger learners, simple symbols used to exhibit addition or subtraction processes can serve as a subtle reminder to students during instruction and practice.
  • Consider taping simple visual resources to each desk during the start of a new math unit. If beginning to discuss fractions, use a photos of segmented chocolate chip cookies for reference. With a visual, some students may find that decimals and fractions are more approachable when they can see what that fraction looks like in a physical sense; ⅛ of a cookie is much less appealing than ¾ of the same cookie.
  • Teachers can prompt visual thinking as well by asking clarifying questions or having students come up with their own comparisons. If measuring objects, ask students to brainstorm what they think would be a similar sized object. What would be slightly smaller or bigger? Which might weigh more? Ask students to visualize patterns and proceed with the next series of figures.

The Value in Real-World Consequences

Many school policies and protocols today are not exactly reflective of the real world environment for which we are trying to prepare students. While these methods are put into place to encourage student success, the flip side of these practices can result in inadvertently fostering a level of helplessness, complacency, dependence, and excuses. How, then, can we ensure that students are well-supported, yet held accountable at the same time? The balancing act can be tedious, but there are some strategies that parents and teachers can utilize to prepare children and teens for the REAL WORLD.

 

Expect and accept failure, but learn from it

It is important that students be reminded of the very real likelihood that they will encounter failure in their adult lives—and probably more than a few times. They must be ready to handle challenges, setbacks, and obstacles in order to learn how to mediate those hurdles. A great student and future contributing member of society, no matter his or her career path, will be able to problem-solve. However, if problems are always solved for them, they will struggle to acquire this skill.

Parents and teachers can:

  • Encourage students to follow up directly with teachers on assignments that did not go so well. If the grade is dreadful, instead of balling the paper up and throwing it away in frustration, provide students with time to conference about that specific essay or exam.
  • Utilize opportunities for error analysis by providing specific feedback and areas of need. This way, students can use failure as a learning opportunity—a moment for growth as opposed to just disappointment.
  • Remind children and teens that the grade is just one measure of their learning; it does not indicate their total level of knowledge or ability. Instead of dwelling on the percentage, use this as a reminder of skills that still need to be practiced or acquired.

 

Get acquainted with “One and Done”

Reassessments, rewrites, resubmissions, etc., are a norm, especially for Montgomery County Public Schools. While the sentiment behind such policies is beneficial—we want students to correct mistakes, participate in reteaching opportunities, and make additional attempts to demonstrate their learning. However, there are several holes in the practice when students a) expect a second opportunity even before submitting the first attempt, and b) receive countless opportunities to increase the grade with little focus on the actual learning.

Parents and teachers can:

  • Set boundaries and limits when it comes to reassessment opportunities. Allow for 1-2 major reassessments per quarter only. Otherwise, excluding extenuating circumstances, hold to the “one and done” policy. With fewer chances to show what they know, students will be motivated to do their best the first time.
  • Help teach students how to prioritize steps and manage time for long-term assignments and final exams.
  • Emphasize chunking and proactive planning to help students tackle complex or lengthy tasks with confidence. Instead of cramming with the expectation that they’ll be able to try again, students will learn how to organize themselves to succeed on the task the first time.
  • It is okay to remind students flat-out: you will rarely get a second opportunity when it comes to college and career scenarios. This is why it is best to always try your best.

 

Hold firmly to due dates and deadlines

Another key aspect of the real world that children and teens may be missing from their classroom experiences is the importance of meeting a deadline. It has gotten to the point that some teachers will accept any work, no matter how late, to ensure that students receive credit for completed or partially completed work. This does not foster punctual planning or accountability.

  • Teachers should try their best to stick to deadlines once they have been set. Of course, if the entire class needs additional time for a task, it is necessary to make adjustments. However, extenuating circumstances aside, students should be ready to submit their work in a timely fashion.
  • Create, explain, and adhere to a late grade policy. This way, students know exactly what the penalties will be if they submit late work. Explain to them that, much like a credit card bill, late submissions are subject to penalties, and American Express is not going to care that your internet was slow if you failed to pay your bill.

 

Clearly explain the 50% rule to both parents and students

MCPS follows the 50% rule for grading, meaning that, once attempted, a student cannot earn anything less than a 50% on an assignment, quiz, essay, test, etc. While this is the county policy, it is not reflective at all of the real world—we simply do not receive credit for a job started or somewhat attempted. We receive credit for a job well done.

  • Explain to parents and students that the 50% rule means a “genuine attempt” at the task or assignment; it does not mean that a child can put their name on a paper and automatically receive half credit.
  • As opposed to accepting an attempted assignment, provide another option for students to earn more credit. Explain to students that they can take the 50 by coming in during lunch for an additional work period. This teaches students that success cannot be achieved without effort and that there will be no “participation trophies” in college or the workplace.

 

Critical Thinking Skills as an Approach to Behaviors at Home

 

Especially as children become stir crazy cooped up inside during the winter months, behaviors can begin to fall out of whack. Perhaps routines have been off, bedtimes have been extended, or one too many holiday desserts has sent someone into a tizzy. Whatever the case may be, we can always appreciate a fresh approach to dealing with misbehaviors. If time-outs, confiscated iPads, or groundings are wearing on the family, a different approach could be beneficial. With a little patience, ok, maybe a lot of patience, conversations where parents prompt children to think critically about their behaviors can change the way in which children see misbehaviors all together.

 

Critical thinking encompasses a complex set of higher order thinking skills. As opposed to memorization or fact-based knowledge, critical thinking includes relational, analytical, reflective, argumentative, or systematic thought processes. It is not so much what you know or think, but why or how you know and think that way. Because critical thinking often involves aspects of perspectives and/or decision making, these strategies can be the perfect platform for dealing with behavior management.

 

When siblings or peers argue:

  • Parents can mediate by asking questions about how an argument began. By taking a moment for reflective thinking, children begin to see how a small issue may have escalated or blown out of proportion.
  • If children are calling one another names, diffuse the situation by talking about how these are opinions; they are not based on facts. Just because someone calls your stupid certainly does not mean that you are stupid. These words hurt, of course, but ask your child why this person’s cruelness affects them; do you value this peer’s hurtful opinion?
  • Encourage siblings to take the other’s perspective for a moment. Ask why she thinks her brother acted that way towards her. Why might his friend have behaved this way? The key is, not so much in finding the exact purpose, but instead taking a moment to consider where that other person could be coming from.
  • Ask about alternative responses for next time. Is there a better option for dealing with a conflict like this in the future? What is the best way to respond to your little brother next time this happens? What are we not going to do again, and why?

When “so-and-so’s parents” let them do A, B, or C:

  • A rational explanation and some critical thinking can go a long way when children are upset over things that other kids are allowed to do. Calmly explain that everyone’s family operates differently, and so-and-so might be able to stay up until 10 pm simply because their parents work late… Or perhaps so-and-so sleeps in and rushes out the door every morning…Or it is possible that so-and-so feels like a walking zombie at the school most days. Whatever the scenario, remind your child that there are reasons behind your household routines—and another family’s routine is frankly irrelevant.
  • Discuss the implications of these decisions. If a friend is allowed to see R-rated movies, but your child is not, explain how an inappropriate movie could make them scared, uncomfortable, worried, restless, sleepless, and ultimately cranky or sluggish at school. Help them connect the dots between the rules and their purposes so that they see these guidelines as meaningful, instead of arbitrary.
  • Ask your child flat-out: “Besides the fact that so-and-so is allowed, do you have a valid reason or justification for changing the rules this time?” This forces children and teens to justify or support their stance with effective reasoning.

When frustrations boil over:

  • Encourage children to take a beat to evaluate the situation—what can we do to potentially solve this problem or ease this frustration? Think about why this particular task is causing so much frustration and use that as a new point of entry.
  • If math homework is about to cause a fit, take a brain break, walk away from the math packet, and cool down. Then, approach the problem with a cool head and fresh viewpoint. Think about it in “grand scheme of things” terms—is this something that is going to keep me up all night or ruin my month? Chances are, this meltdown will be a nonissue in a matter of hours.
  • Help them break down the problem or situation and tackle the parts that they feel confident about. Remind them to apply what they know and then use those methods to chip away at the task.
  • If the task is still complicated, encourage children to write down exactly what it is that they don’t know or are missing—what would they need to solve this problem or complete this assignment?
  • Apply the skill to a simpler problem and use that momentum to approach the more complex problem. Often times, in simplifying a question, we are better able to see aspects of the problem that we may have missed due to the complexity.

When problems are on the cusp or horizon:

  • Call it psychic power or paternal/maternal observations, but parents are often able to tell when an issue, conflict, or temper is about to erupt. Teach children this reflective skill by modeling how to gauge one’s feelings and emotions. This helps to avoid or circumvent conflicts or attitudes that could be problematic.
  • Discuss the concept of foresight and how such anticipation can help in our decision making. Remind children that everything they do has an impact or effect on those around them.
  • In considering these implications, children are able to pause to consider the ripple effect that any decision might have. The ability to contemplate and deliberate based on past experiences and logical reasoning allows children to make more informed choices, and thus behave in more considerate or responsible ways.

Motivating the Unmotivated

While motivation is often linked to academic achievement, the same is not necessarily true for motivation and intelligence. We are all familiar with the naturally gifted student who fails consistently, not for lack of intelligence, but because of his or her lack of motivation. These seemingly hopeless situations can be difficult for parents, especially when they know that their child has all the potential and wherewithal. But what can be done to boost motivation? How can we inspire and incite action when the foundation is nonexistent?

 

Investigate the root of the problem

Oftentimes, a lack of motivation is the result of a bigger issue. For unmotivated children, there is likely some sort of deterrent or impediment between the child and the task. Sometimes the issue stems from a learning obstacle, such as a disability or cognitive barrier. Other times, unmotivated students have had multiple or severely negative experiences in school that have caused them to be “turned off” or “checked out.” It is also possible that the child simply does not see the value in putting forth effort and exhibiting self-motivation. Whatever the case may be, parents can begin to establish motivation by examining the reason behind its absence. Talk to children about why they truly do not want to try something. Is there a reason that they are so opposed to showing effort or enthusiasm for learning? Pose the questions so that they do not sound interrogative, but instead seek to understand the child’s position.

 

Set longterm and shortterm goals

Even the most unmotivated child has some sort of goal or aspiration. Parents should tap into these interests as a means to foster motivation, both in the immediate and distant future. Ask your child what he or she would like to accomplish tomorrow. Allow that answer to span outside of the academic realm. For instance, if your child is lacking motivation in school, but shows an interest in making the club soccer team, encourage that level of interest first as a springboard. Perhaps tomorrow’s goal is to juggle the soccer ball 30 times without dropping it, but this year’s goal is to make the soccer team. Talk about how these short-term goals are essentially the building blocks towards reaching the long term goal. Hone in on the fact that practicing, strategizing, focusing, and modifying will be key for reaching that short-term goal. And that while failure and outside obstacles are going to occur, resilience and motivation are 100% controllable internal factors. Then, when the topic of academics arises, remind that unmotivated student of the steps and lengths that he went to in order to accomplish the juggling goal. Discuss how you can translate that motivation into effort towards schoolwork.

 

Express excitement and admiration when they do show motivation towards anything

Kids, especially young children, may not fully conceptualize the notion of intrinsic motivation—they don’t necessarily know why they care, they just do. To boost their understanding of building and maintaining motivation, praise their effort when they exhibit it. Acknowledge their focus and drive for whatever it may be that they’re working on—the more you point out this motivation, the more likely they are to internalize this concept of self-motivation and effort.

 

Lead by example

We all know that attitude is contagious; the same can be said for effort and motivation. When children see motivated parents with their own interests and passions, they begin to see that effort comes from a true desire to achieve, create, accomplish, and grow. Passionate people inspire those around them, so parents can certainly boost motivation at home by expressing their own efforts and motivation for their genuine interests.

 

Instruct with positive and negative consequences

Different from bribery, positive and negative consequences ensure that children learn how to take ownership for their actions and level of effort (or lack thereof). Of course, no child will be intrinsically motivated to make his bed. Instead, parents should remind children that failure to complete their chores will result in a consequence—essentially, children will recognize that they’re actually punishing themselves by choosing to neglect their tasks. Thus, they become motivated by the desire to avoid the negative consequence. Consequently, a positive outcome from doing one’s chores can boost motivation and the desire to accomplish tasks in the sense that the child connects his or her effort to the reward or positive result.

Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations should help students two-fold. Accommodations should provide support for students to access material and demonstrate mastery, and they should also foster a sense of confidence and boost students’ ability to advocate for themselves. When students feel successful, especially on an assessment, that confidence is magnified and motivates students that may have been discouraged by their learning differences. It is likely that students who struggle with a learning disability look unfavorably at their ability to test well. This does not have to be the case. With testing accommodations, students can reach their full potential and truly thrive.

Executive Functions Disorder:

Of course, accommodations should be tailored to each learner’s specific needs—that is why plans are called IEPs, or individualized education programs. These tools are tailored to each individual student, as there are certain accommodations that are known to assist certain styles of learners better than others. For students with executive function difficulties, testing accommodations can changes testing woes into wins.

Because students with executive functioning disorder struggle specifically with tasks involving higher-level thinking skills, testing accommodations remove unnecessary obstacles so that students can demonstrate an accurate picture of their knowledge. For example, some students may lack confidence when it comes to multiple choice questions. It is not that he/she lacks the knowledge or skills to arrive at the correct answer, it is simply that the ability to eliminate incorrect answers becomes a major distraction.

Provide students with three answer options as opposed to four—this makes the task of elimination less daunting.

Prompt students to physically cross or scratch out the answers that they know are incorrect; reminding them of this test-taking strategy can sometimes be all the help students need.

Allow students to mark or bubble their options right on the test booklet, as opposed to transferring them to a Scantron or bubble sheet. This eliminates the possibility that they will bubble the wrong answer or unintentionally skip questions.

Encourage students to highlight, underline, or mark certain parts of the question or answer options that stand out as crucial to the question. For example, if a question asks “What is not one of the author’s purposes for writing the text?” prompt students to recognize and mark the word not to reinforce the fact that they are looking for a non-answer.

Practice explicit, direct instruction of common testing terms such as analyze, organize, complete, develop, process, etc. These concepts are difficult for all students in the sense that they require abstract thinking. However, for students with executive functioning disorder, these types of cognitive skills are the precise functions that they struggle with specifically. If a test question asks them to “assess the use of the term” consider rewording the question or providing a footnote to explain what you mean by assess.

If students are asked to organize a paragraph in response to a prompt, provide them with a graphic organizer. This small modification helps students to get the ball rolling when constructing their response. They are still tasked with writing the response; however, the intimidation factor is eased by the fact that they have a scaffold form which to work.

Similarly, providing students with sentence frames in addition to a graphic organizer can help ease the stress of a written response. Since executive function disorder is often marked by the inability to or difficulty with organizing thoughts and conveying them in written form, sentence frames provide students with a starting point and allow them to show that they have mastered the concept without the cognitive output interfering.

International Ask a Question Day: An Educator’s Observation

March 14th marks the somewhat underrated “holiday” devoted to asking questions. Suitably falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage the practice of seeking knowledge. In the world of education, questions are paramount in the learning process. In my own experience—and I think most teachers would agree—our job in the classroom involves asking, answering, and clarifying questions.

True story: Purely out of my own curiosity, I decided to tally the number of questions I was asked during a random school day. Any question counted—from, “Can I go to the water fountain?” to, “Should I underline the title of an article?” By the final period of the day, I knew I had a significant number of hash marks, but the exact amount of questions that had been asked far exceeded what I had anticipated. The number of questions was somewhere in the 300’s—and it was an early-dismissal day.

The point of this anecdote is to express the extent to which questions drive our work in the classroom. Students expect to get answers. Many may quantify those answers as learning. However, the real learning occurs when questions are formulated. To drum up a question, a student must first separate what he knows from what he does not know. This practice of sifting through knowledge and categorizing skills by competency takes a great deal of reflection. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is thought to ring true for many students, yet in my observations, students are somewhat experts at recognizing what they do not know.

So, how can we use this almost innate penchant for curiosity and inquiry to best benefit our students?

Encourage your quiet students to “speak up” by allowing multiple ways of asking questions in class. This could mean keeping a question box or post-it notes available for students to jot down questions that they may be too shy to ask. You could also take a similar digital approach using Padlet or Google Classroom. Students are able to post questions to an online forum or webpage; they can also respond to others’ posts as well.

When reviewing for an assessment, have students create practice questions that they would anticipate seeing on the test. Have students submit or swap questions so that students can practice answering each other’s questions. If questions are well-written and relevant, use some student-derived questions on the actual assessment. This is also a way for teachers to gauge the students’ preparation for an upcoming assessment.

Play the well-known party game “just questions” in which students are only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages students to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Students must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

Provide students with broad or general questions like, “What is the setting of the story?” Then have students kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of inquiry. For instance, they might change the original question about setting to, “How does the setting affect the conflict that the character faces?” This practice allows students to add a layer of deeper analysis to a general question. Furthermore, this activity allows for plenty of differentiation depending on student ability.

Ready, set, GO BACK TO SCHOOL!!! Organization Style. Part 1 of 6

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Ready, set, GO BACK TO SCHOOL!!!!

Organization Style

It’s that time again—the back-to-school commercials are in full swing! Backpacks, lunch boxes, clothes, and school supplies are some of the things occupying the minds of parents these days. As the sun sets on summer 2016, it is important to ensure that your child is given every advantage to begin the school year with a bang!

While much focus is put on school supplies and the “necessary” materials, one key element in preparing for a successful year ahead is to put organization in the forefront. And, as they say, practice truly makes perfect—or close to it. Organization applies to a multitude of facets in the educational realm. While all are important, organizing time or “time management” is essential. For example, consider if a student has color-coordinated references, organized notes, and an impeccable outline for a research paper, yet that same “organized” student gives himself Sunday night to complete the final draft of his research paper. All of the prior organization becomes a futile attempt if time was poorly organized.

Organization, specifically time management, is a skill that comes with practice. Even as adults, we sometimes drop the ball by failing to plan ahead accordingly. Here are some tips to ensure that time management makes its way into your household this school year.

Start from the beginning. As we all know, it is much easier to prevent negative habits than to correct them later on. Right from the start, discuss a realistic daily schedule that includes designated homework/reading time, after-school activities, family time, and reasonable sleep/wake times. Of course, be prepared to be flexible when things inevitably come up. But, for the most part, a set schedule will help your child to maintain balance and assuage the stress that comes with cramming.
Model the practice of planning ahead. Especially in the middle and upper grades, projects and assignments become more labor-intensive. With several steps, check-in points, and deadlines, it is easy for students to quickly lose track or get overwhelmed. As with many difficult tasks, showing is more beneficial than telling. Show your child how to organize by breaking down large assignments and setting at home check-in points in advance of the actual due dates. Also, show them how to prioritize more difficult tasks. For example, a five-paragraph argumentative essay is going to need more attention than a vocabulary practice sheet.
Be proactive with organizing your time. It is important to anticipate certain roadblocks to prevent last-minute school stressors. Check the printer for ink before the paper is due; plan for picture day so that the outfit of choice is clean and pressed; pack gym clothes with extra socks so that the morning rush through the dryer can be avoided; email teachers about foreseen absences ahead of time to get any missed work or important information; have a plan for sick days, in which your child has a buddy in the neighborhood to bring work back.

Teaching students how to organize their time is a skill that will prove beneficial throughout their academic and adult lives.

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Homework Time Made Easier

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Homework is simply a fact of life for today’s students. As early as kindergarten, children are bringing homework home from school. While homework has its many benefits, the majority of students would rather forget about the additional practices, projects, and papers. With such an aversion, homework time at home can be a real battle. Yet, it does not have to be. There are many tried-and-true strategies when it comes to alleviating the stress of homework.

Here are some of our favorites.

First and foremost, a key to easing homework stress is to make sure that the homework actually makes it home. Depending on your child’s age, it may be a struggle to simply keep track of the many worksheets that need to travel to and from school. Keeping your child’s work organized can make all the difference when sitting down to work. Try using a homework folder designated for nightly assignments. Use color-coded tabs or sticky notes to manage daily assignments and due dates. Staying organized is a significant start to managing the homework routine.

Set a Schedule

Set expectations by creating a homework schedule. Between the many afterschool activities and busy schedules that each family undoubtedly juggles, homework may become an afterthought. Make sure that your child knows when and where he or she should be completing homework each night. Set limits on the use of technology during homework time. Cell phones, television, and other distractions can make homework completion impossible, so it is best that these things remain off limits until homework is completed.

Break It Down

When homework has mounted to a seemingly unmanageable level, break the assignments down to avoid a mental meltdown. Especially during the middle and high school years, the amount of homework assignments can increase greatly. Staring down a mountain of papers can stress out both you and your child. If your child is unable to chunk the assignments into manageable pieces, help them out by creating an “order of importance” list. Arrange the work into a schedule based on difficulty and due date. This way, you and your child can prioritize the homework and alleviate any stress from the many assignments.

Promote Practice, Not Perfection

When it comes to difficult assignments, emphasize the importance of effort and completion, not necessarily perfection or 100% correctness. When homework becomes a frustrating tear-session for your child, explain that homework is meant to be practice. Too often, students stress over the need to answer questions and submit flawless assignments. Yes, that is the eventual goal, but homework is meant to provide practice—not display perfection. In fact, most homework assignments are intended to show the teacher whether or not students understood the content. Teachers also use homework assignments as a way to gauge the pacing of lessons or content. So, when the tears start welling, remind your child that homework is for practice.