Isaac is my middle son. He is my 15-year-old sweet boy who does well in school, is a phenomenal football player, watches his little brother and sister for me while I run errands and voluntarily plays cards with his little sister. He is also my kid who forgets everything! I ask him to put the clothes in the dryer – he does this, but forgets to turn the dryer on. I ask him to take the trash out – he makes it to the garage, but not to the trash bin. I ask him to make sure he turns in his FACS project – he takes it with him, but leaves it on the bus. Isaac has weak executive functioning skills. Like many other kids with ADD, high functioning autism, or just a wandering mind; he has difficulty envisioning the end result of a task, and therefore, doesn’t finish completely.
Executive function refers to a set of brain-based abilities that help people control behavior and plan, set and reach goals (Kenworthy, et al., 2014). Some of these abilities manifest as a lack in cognitive ability (academic tasks) while others manifest as a lack of behavior skill (actions).
Students with weak executive function struggle to visualize the outcome of tasks. For example, when a teacher says, “let’s get ready for recess”, a student with strong executive function skills will begin visualizing what they look like when they are ready for recess. This student pictures himself on the playground. He sees some snow on the ground and the wind blowing the flag. This triggers the student to remember to put on his coat, hat and gloves. Additionally, the student thinks about the classroom routine. The student pushes in his chair, goes to his cubby to put on his outerwear and finds his place in line.
To the contrary, a student with poor executive function skills hears the word “recess”. Instead of visualizing the steps needed to get ready for recess, this student runs to the front of the line. His chair is out in the aisle of the classroom, he has no coat and he is not in place in the line.
A common intervention for students who have weak executive function skills are checklists. For many students, these lists work well to prompt necessary actions. Another intervention that may be even more effective is helping students visualize what it looks like to be ready for an activity. Instead of saying, “let’s get ready for recess” and teacher may say, “imagine yourself at your cubby, what do you see yourself doing?”. This will prompt students visualize going to the cubby and putting on the necessary clothing. A teacher might also quietly address and individual student and ask, “what is your plan in getting ready for recess?”. This allows the student to practice self-talk as he works his way through the process.
Sara Ward is a speech-language pathologist who presents on executive function. She suggests taking a picture of your student completely ready to go to recess, standing in his spot in line. Put that picture at the student’s desk so he has an actual visual of himself ready to go to recess. This is brilliant for a plethora of situations. At home, parents can take a picture of: their child brushing her teeth, standing at the bus stop ready to go to school, and their child ready to go to soccer practice.
This can also be used to provide a visual for chores. When my son “cleans” his room, it is never my definition of clean. Instead of telling him (every time) that he needs to get the dirty clothes out of his closet and he needs to empty his trash can and he needs to put his clothes inside the dresser, I could just take a picture of the room clean to my satisfaction. Then, when I tell him to clean his room, he can refer back to the picture to make sure every part of the task is complete. The same accommodation works for having all of the necessary items to take a shower, having all of the items needed to study, having all of the items to set the table. All of these pictures help the child visualize the end product of the task.
Another brilliant tool Sara Ward suggests is the use of an analog clock and a dry erase marker. Students who have issues completing tasks in a certain amount of time need to have a visual of the passage of time. Using the dry erase marker, put the end time that the task must be completed on the clock first. Working backwards, shade in slices of the clock with specific parts of the task broken down until reaching the start time. The first section of the clock include time for, “get ready, do, done.” Within the “done” section of the clock a second sliver is dedicated to “get done.” This is the part where the student actually turns in the completed project! Build in check-points so the student is prompted to check in with the teacher during the project to stay on task. I highly recommend looking up Sara Ward’s work at www.efpractice.com.
Another fabulous teaching tool for this concept is Julia Cook’s book, Planning Isn’t My Priority…and Making Priorities Isn’t In my Plans! Cletus is the main character in this book about executive function. He goes to the swimming pool without his swimsuit, he goes camping with no tent and he has no idea how to prioritize for a large class project. This book is full of opportunities to talk about visualizing what students need to do before beginning a task. The project that Cletus and his cousin work on in this book is a perfect example of setting up a “get ready, “do”, “done”, “get done” plan.