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Boost Early Learning Success by Recognizing and Improving Executive Functioning

December 19, 2022

by: Ramon Torres

2 mins


On this week’s episode of Literacy Matters, we are joined by Michelle Paster M.A., a former special education teacher and executive director of LearningWorks, who talks about the importance of nurturing healthy executive functioning. Paster has dedicated more than 25 years to supporting students with diagnosed learning disabilities overcome difficulties and reach their maximum potential.

What is “executive functioning”?

Much like the name suggests, executive functioning relates to the action of planning, organizing, and executing thoughts or actions coherently. Metacognition, the process of thinking about thinking, is associated with executive functioning. As students age, their frontal lobes expand and undergo changes that, without proper habit forming, could cause learning difficulties.

How can I identify executive functioning issues in my students?

Before neuroscience was established as a course of study, students who were inattentive or hyperactive were labeled as just that – lost in the clouds or waging a war on classroom order. However, the discovery of attention disorders such as ADHD has helped educators better grasp how these students function.

If you notice students constantly wiggling, fidgeting, or fooling around in their chairs, it can be an indicator that they might be exhibiting executive functioning issues. Students who appear to be inattentive may look spacey or like they’re giving their attention to everything except their required assignments.

Is there anything I can do to help my students?

Of course there is! Michelle Paster has dedicated her literacy journey to finding out simple, easy-to-implement tips that help educators address this issue. In more severe cases, students may require further examination by an occupational therapist or other expert. Start with some of these tips if you find your students struggling in the classroom:

  1. Encourage Self-Monitoring – If you notice a student spacing out, ask them if they noticed their behavior! “Did you notice that you were spacing out just now?” This is a simple, yet effective, way of helping students understand themselves and recognize early issues.
  2. Use Grounding Techniques – Some students who are hyperattentive might be experiencing sensory overload. Help them ground themselves by asking to look around the room and identify a few objects they see or hear. Grounding gives students a chance to focus  and mitigate sensory overload.
  3. Create Routes and Habits – One of the best ways to help students with organization is by conditioning them to create healthy habits early in their academic careers. Designate a day out of the week for them to clear out their desks or backpacks. Teach them how to neatly organize everything once they have done so. Habits create structure and get students into the habit of building good habits!
  4. Every child is different. They’re different in the way they talk, walk, and learn. By taking the time to sit back and identify these differences in your students, it can be easier to notice if something is a little off. If you can target students who struggle with executive functioning earlier on, you can start helping them correct those issues by creating healthy classroom routines.  

To see what other strategies Michelle Paster suggests for remedying executive functioning issues, watch the full episode of Literacy Matters with Cheryl Lundy Swift.

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