The executive path to success

22nd December 2017 at 00:00
Procrastination, poor focus, impulsiveness… all are traits often labelled as bad behaviour. But children may simply be lacking the right cognitive skills for planning and problem-solving, argues Grace Elliot

A large part of my day is spent with students who are intelligent and capable, but who can’t seem to organise their belongings, think before they act, or begin a project without procrastination.

Often, children like this can be labelled as careless, lazy or wilfully disobedient. But a likely cause of these behaviours is actually to do with their executive functions.

In research on the subject, it is generally agreed that there are three core executive functions: inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility. These are the foundation for reasoning, problem-solving and planning.

 

* Inhibition is important for managing and controlling attention, behaviour and emotions, such as resisting the temptation to overeat or respond impulsively. A study that followed 1,000 children spanning 32 years found that children whose inhibition was worse (ie, they had less persistence, more impulsivity and poorer attention regulation) at ages 3-11 had, 30 years later, worse health, earned less money, were less happy and committed more crimes than those who had better inhibitory control as children (controlling for IQ, gender, social class, and home and family circumstances during childhood).

* Working memory refers to holding information in mind and mentally working with it. It is a crucial function for making sense of anything that unfolds over time, requiring that which happened earlier to be held in mind and related to that which is happening now.

* Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to see something from another person’s point of view, consider an issue from a different angle, adjust to changing demands or priorities, admit to being wrong or take advantage of sudden, unexpected opportunities.

 

Evidence now suggests that the neural systems underlying executive functions can be enhanced through specific and targeted intervention, and that this can lead to changes in the brain and behaviour.

So how can we identify those for whom such interventions might be suitable? Yes, take advice from your special educational needs and disabilities coordinator, but it is important for teachers to be on the lookout for issues, too.

Teachers are often the first to recognise serious problems with a child’s ability to control impulses, focus attention, stay organised or follow instructions.

Mislabelling these issues as “bad behaviour” is problematic. While motivation can be a key factor in a student’s behaviour, it is important to recognise that any problem may also be due to a skill weakness.

Before making a personalised plan for a student, they can first be assessed using a questionnaire, such as that written by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare (bit.ly/ExecutiveSkills). What type of intervention should then be put in place?

The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University makes a number of recommendations on how to develop executive functions; these primarily focus on identifying goals, planning, monitoring progress and supporting students to adjust their behaviour.

 

1. Setting targets

One strategy is to encourage the student to identify something specific that they want to accomplish (it is important that the goals are meaningful to the teen and not established by others); support is then provided to them in identifying short- and long-term goals, as well as what needs to be done to achieve them.

During the process, useful strategies in helping the student to identify counterproductive habitual and impulsive actions, as well as maintaining attention and conscious control, include coaching conversations and encouraging the student to focus on their own learning progress.

Correspondence training can also be used. This is based on the well-documented notion that when individuals make a verbal commitment to engage in a behaviour, they are more likely to actually carry it out.

 

2. Giving a sporting chance

Harvard University recognises the capacity of sport to draw on the student’s own ability to monitor their actions, make quick decisions and respond flexibly to play. It also says that being taught to play a musical instrument can help develop cognitive flexibility and inhibition.

 

3. Embracing difficulty

The final approach is to employ incentives to get students to use the executive functions that they find difficult. Many argue that incentives encourage extrinsically motivated behaviour that is driven for the external reward, rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation (when motivation arises from the desire to learn, improve and have fun).

Incentives make engaging with a task less aversive, though, and appropriate incentives after completion of a task can help to teach delayed gratification.

By building simple interventions into my work as a special educational needs teacher, I hope the students that I teach will develop their executive functions. In doing so, they can develop independent thinking, learning and coping skills that will serve them for life.


Grace Elliot is a teacher of special educational needs at Wellington College, Berkshire

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