Podcast: Encouraging Teachers to Build Students’ Executive Functioning Skills | Steve Barkley

Podcast: Encouraging Teachers to Build Students’ Executive Functioning Skills

Encouraging Teachers to Build Students’ Executive Functioning Skills

Teacher educator, Brenda Watkins, shares her classroom experiences and content from the graduate level course Developing Executive Function to Empower Learners. Included are observable elements for recognizing strategies and opportunities for extending teacher focus on empowering students.

Contact Brenda at: bwakins@pls3rdlearning.com

Learn about Project Zero here.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTAd: 00:00 Are you interested in career advancement? Do you want to have a greater impact in the classroom? If so, PLS Classes is waiting for you. PLS Classes as a resource designed to empower and advance educators by teaching them valuable research-based strategies they can apply in the classroom. By completing a PLS Classes course, you will discover how to motivate and engage learners while elevating your professional expertise. Visit plsclasses.com today to learn more. Your future awaits.

Steve [Intro]: 00:32 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.

Steve: 01:00 Encouraging teachers to build students’ executive functioning skills. Experienced teacher and teacher educator, Brenda Watkins, is joining our podcast today. Brenda has substantial experience in working with executive functioning. Brenda, I’m wondering if you’d share some of the insights that you’ve gained across your years of teaching that caused you to have this focus on building students’ executive functioning skills.

Brenda: 01:35 Yes. I noticed that students with strong executive functioning skills, they’re able to navigate the multiple requirements of an everyday school day by paying attention, making transitions and organizing their work. So as a result, they’re more successful learners. But then on the other hand, I noticed that the students with executive functioning deficits, they struggle with things such as inhibitory control, which is basically staying in their seat, paying attention, trying to stay at organized. And then as a result of that, their deficit can affect their learning and their grades and also lower their self-efficacy.

Steve: 02:21 So there’s this strong connection between students who are struggling with executive functioning skills, having their academic learning be influenced and impacted by it. So building those skills increases students’ success from an academic standpoint. Have I got that straight?

Brenda: 02:45 Yes. f students don’t have the basic executive functioning skills such as organization, we have to remember as well that we can give them all that organization we want, but it has to come from what works best for that child. When I first started, I had this idea that I was going to do this – to organize and everybody would use the same exact thing and I would explicitly teach that. Well, that’s good, but at the same time, they need to have their way that works best for them so that they can learn it.

Steve: 03:22 So, Brenda, I’m wondering, as an observer in a teacher’s a classroom, what are some of the things that as an observer, I might see that illustrate for me that the teacher is either consciously or unconsciously addressing opportunities for building students’ executive functioning skills?

Brenda: 03:44 So you would walk into a classroom environment that supports the idea that you would see teachers who have procedures in place for organization. Those smooth transitions, maybe social guidelines that are established and even posted, different rules that are posted and then also enforced with that consistent idea and pervasive idea. Also, they would notice that teachers are emphasizing thinking strategies and they’re making that visible through strong discussions and essential debriefing of whatever it is they’re learning. You would notice that teachers who expect their students to be that idea of an independent thinker and self-directed responsible and being accountable for their learning, building that strong self-efficacy in the classroom. So that classroom environment would support the idea of consciously or unconsciously addressing executive functioning.

Steve: 04:54 As I was listening to you, I did a flashback to a teacher’s classroom that I observed and I certainly didn’t have the phrase executive functioning in my head at the time. But when I found the teacher doing was at the beginning of the year, she had her classroom rules written on sentence strips and the sentence strips were hung up at different spots around the room. And then she was informing her students that her goal was to be able to take down all of those sentence strips, meaning that, as the social skillset of the class came into play, that those rules would no longer be needed. The rules were only there now, because we hadn’t had the chance to develop that yet.

Brenda: 05:52 That is amazing. That’s a cool way of thinking that. That’s throwing back in the kid for self responsibility.

Steve: 06:00 So then there was a ceremony when they would reach a day and decide that they could take that one down and roll it up and put it away. And then if a problem occurred, she, in effect, brought it back out. It looks like we weren’t quite ready. We put it away too soon and it went back up as a way of of reinforcing the kids to it. And it just jumped out at me remembering that, I thought it was impressive when I saw it. And I’m seeing now that in effect, she was labeling those as executive functioning skills for kids to develop.

Brenda: 06:35 And that’s very important that we do label those and that we make the students aware of the rules and that we need to explicitly teach them. Like if a coach is responsible to come in and help assist the teacher or an administrator needs to come in and assist the teacher in that, it is important that they understand that explicit teaching is best practice teaching. Because how are you better to learn something if you cannot expect the behavior if you do not teach a behavior. I like that idea of the sentence strips. How creative.

Steve: 07:16 So I guess I’m hearing teach it, model it and coach it.

Brenda: 07:21 Yes.

Steve: 07:22 So is executive functioning something that’s important for teachers to be taking a conscious look at at all grade levels?

Brenda: 07:32 Absolutely. We have to understand since we’re not born with these skills, they develop as we mature and well into our twenties, our early environment and educational experience, they influence whether our potential is fully realized. So it is imperative that educators understand and work to foster that idea of executive functioning and correlate it with the developmental stages in different grade levels as we teach, because you can’t expect a student to go and plan something out when they’re in first grade. Maybe the basics of planning, but you can’t expect something if it was not taught. And executive functioning is developmental and it happens throughout a person’s life. So, as I said, I’m thinking too, like, as I send my own children off into the world, it develops well into your twenties. So students that are in college and things like that, they’re still working on those basic executive functioning skills.

Steve: 08:45 Am I hearing almost assessment as as part of the teacher’s role here? The ability to assess where students are in their development of executive functioning skills, and then being able to plan for the appropriate instruction and opportunities that a particular student or groups of students would need in order for them to move ahead?

Brenda: 09:14 Yes. Since they’re at a developmental stage, we can’t expect things – there’s different windows of opportunity for those development, like different developmental periods with executive functioning and looking at research and the idea of neuroscience, they’ve found that there’s the different strategies and methods that educators can use to improve the skills and can benefit all learners snd it helps to keep students’ function deficits from falling through the cracks. And so it is important that we as educators know that and administrators as well, so they can jump in where it is needed.

Steve: 10:05 So, Brenda, I know that you are are teaching a graduate level course for teachers on on executive functioning and I’m wondering, in that course, what are some of the things you share with teachers as the benefits of teachers deciding to invest time and energy in having the development of executive functioning skills as a desired outcome of their of their planning and their instruction?

Brenda: 10:38 Well, I go back to saying, executive functioning skills support learning. And so without those executive functioning skills, you’re not going to have that learning idea. So when students can pay attention, when they can organize their work, exhibit self-regulation of behaviors and their emotion and be self-directed learners, then they know how to think. It’s easier to teach and it becomes less challenging for the teacher to do their job when you have strategies in place. I know that in this course, PLS 3rd Learning has done some research at looking at Project Zero, which is through Harvard, and there are a ton of resources and strategies for specific grade levels on that site.

Steve: 11:33 As I was listening to you, I was wondering about teachers working in professional learning communities and the degree to which that’s a time for teachers to be working together to look at building students’ executive functioning skills.

Brenda: 11:51 Yes. And I’m going to be honest – I am grateful that I teach in a building where my building principal, he fosters that idea of best practice. And we are actually working on that executive functioning skills and effective strategies that are best practice. Teachers are able to collaborate and we can see different procedures. We’re allowed to go in and observe each other and pinpoint things that might work. And we work together on a daily basis. Like every morning when I go to work, we have a PLC meeting and not only are we looking at data from like assessments, we’re looking at the student in general, and we’re trying to make that student a better productive citizen. And what way to do that then to partner with everybody at the grade level that sees those same developmental skills and we’re able to help each other, and we can plan those targeted interventions for students and help with those executive functioning deficits.

Steve: 13:04 Is it fair to say that as a teacher, I need my own executive functioning skills in order to work effectively in that PLC?

Brenda: 13:12 Absolutely. Because I’m going to be honest – it’s not always easy sometimes, people coming in on a Monday morning and you’re sitting there and you’re like, “oh my goodness.” Yes, it’s essential that teachers are able to model executive functioning skills that we want our students to exhibit. And I always go back to the idea of as teachers, we must be organized. We must be able to manage that instructional time well. We must be able to have those smooth transitions on a daily basis and doing our job in designing those lessons that stimulate and value problem solving, and the idea of perspective taking and creative cognition. We have to practice what we preach, or it’s not going to work. It’s not going to be bought in by the students. That is our job.

Steve: 14:09 I’m almost hearing the students have to have the experience and the practice to develop the skill more than – I guess what’s going through my mind is, I’m hearing that for kids to develop this teachers need to kind of be backing off teacher control in order for the student to experience what they need to experience.

Brenda: 14:35 And I always say to my students, I am your coach. I am facilitating your learning. I’m your coach yet we use the word teacher. And back in the day, if you look up the word teacher, where it came from, it was long ago and yes, that is our job. We are teaching, we’re expelling information, but really, we are facilitators of learning. We are coaching students to be self regulated learners, to go out into the world and take control of everything. And that’s what we need. We don’t need students sitting in rows being able to answer A, B, C, or D. That is not what is real life. We need real life learning.

Steve: 15:19 So learning how to learn is, in effect, a form of executive functioning skills.

Brenda: 15:25 Yeah. And that metacognitive thinking, they have to know how to think. They have to be able to think about their thinking and communicate it. And it is so important for them to be lifelong learners. I think of that all the time. And I say to the students, you are going to be taking care of me someday. I am teaching you how to take care of me. And they, they giggle, they think it’s funny. And I’m like, yep. That’s how it is. You’re going to be doing this someday. And so, I want the best care possible, so I’m going to give you the best care possible.

Steve: 16:07 Very cool. Very cool. Well Brenda, would you tell folks how they can get get a question off to you that you might respond to directly for them?

Brenda: 16:18 Yes, I can be reached at bwatkins@pls3rdlearning.com

Steve: 16:26 Alright. And we’ll be sure to to put that email address in the lead-in to this podcast along with the connection back to the course and to those resources that you mentioned from Project Zero. Yes. Thank you very much, Brenda.

Brenda: 16:44 Thank you.

Steve [Outro]: 16:46 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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