Teachers can invest in conscious planning to create opportunities for students to strengthen executive functioning skills. Experienced teacher and teacher educator, Brenda Watkins, outlines the benefits and example strategies for all grade levels.
Contact Brenda: firstname.lastname@example.org
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:31 Building students’ executive functioning skills. Today we’re joined by Brenda Watkins, a teacher and teacher educator experienced in developing students’ strengths and executive functioning. Welcome, Brenda.
Brenda: 00:48 Hello, I’m glad to be here.
Steve: 00:51 I’m wondering if you’d start off with telling us a little bit about your your, your teaching background?
Brenda: 00:58 Absolutely. I’ve been teaching in public education for the Williamsport Area School District, the past 21 years. The first 14 years, I taught learning support and itinerate emotional support. And then the past seven years, I’ve been teaching fourth grade all subjects. We do full inclusion model in my school. I also taught elementary education science principles at Lycoming college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. And then I’ve been with PLS 3rd Learning partnered with Wilkes University since 2010, and I’m certified to teach 13 of those graduate courses.
Steve: 01:44 Wow. Lots of experience. I’m guessing from the start, the executive functioning has been a focus area for you within your teaching whether it was formally described or not.
Brenda: 01:59 Yes, absolutely. It has been, especially in the area of special ed and itinerate emotional support, having that direct, explicit teaching, and then bringing it into a full inclusion classroom with differentiated learners.
Steve: 02:18 Can you start by by giving us a kind of a working definition for executive functioning?
Brenda: 02:23 Yeah. The best way to explain executive functioning is it’s kind of like a brain’s air traffic control system. It’s where you manage, you organize direct and control, and it integrates with all the brain’s functions to control those impulses, to make plans in order for a person to stay focused and even basic facilitative thinking. And executive functioning, every function has its own rule, but they’re interconnected and they work together in order for us to navigate the world. So another way to look at it is if you had a Rubik’s cube in your hand, and you were trying to turn that Rubik’s cube, one executive functioning skill can activate can impact the others and the deficits in one area can interrupt and create issues in another, just like if you had that Rubik’s cube and you’re trying to turn it, it’s all based on how it works together.
Steve: 03:34 I know a lot of schools, especially as they went into COVID, increased their focus on social-emotional learning. Is there a connection with social-emotional learning and executive functioning?
Brenda: 03:49 Yes. The formal term of that is inhibitory control and that’s one of the three dimensions of executive functioning. And it is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which is mostly associated with that part of the brain. And since the prefrontal cortex is the last to develop, we see more issues with that control in children, especially at the elementary level. And it naturally matures as a child develops. However, students with that weak inhibitory control, they may struggle throughout the school years and things like any kind of impulse, resisting temptations, any kind of distractions, and we know with like technology and stuff, our students are so used to having everything right in front of them and in their hands. So inhibitory control keeps us from completely being impulsive creatures.
Steve: 04:54 So is it fair to say that that quite often working on students’ executive functioning is embedded within a content focus lesson that a teacher would be delivering? In other words, two outcomes you’re working on at the same time?
Brenda: 05:15 Yeah. And I’m going to go back to that basic explicit teaching of self-regulation and how your behavior equals a choice and how educators practice these skills on a daily basis with things such as like organization, time management, how to like transition from one thing to the next. And in order to develop that executive functioning skill, it requires our students to know what they should be doing and particularly at specific grade levels. And they have to know the strategies and that’s why it’s important for teachers, even as you’re going through anything, you could be teaching, reading, writing, math, science, it’s the educator’s responsibility to support and develop those skills that empower them, but it can be taught through anything.
Steve: 06:13 I’m wondering if you could label an example for me. I’m thinking if you could share an example for primary, middle and high school students. An example, what would a teacher with primary students be doing to help build their executive functioning? I’m sure there’s a ton. But if you kind of pick one at different grade levels, it’ll help us here.
Brenda: 06:35 Honestly, Steve, you could use them throughout the grade levels, starting such as like the, “I do,” “we do,” “you do,” model using that metacognitive language. For example, like with a younger student, something, if a student you see that the student’s missing a pencil and you go back to the “you” language. You need a pencil to complete the assignment where could you find one in the classroom? And teaching things in small chunks, two to five minutes times the age. And I think a lot of times people forget that if you have a nine-year-old and you are teaching a nine-year-old, you have to think of it, like you’re going from two to five minutes, times their age and breaking things into those manageable chunks of time. Also engaging learners with multi-sensory instructions, where the activities are interactive learning opportunities.
Brenda: 07:40 If you think of encouraging attention games, like free time to sit down, oftentimes kids don’t have that free time, but that encouragement of when you are done with this, you can work and having those rich conversations with the students, that’s more of the primary grade going back, like Simon Says and things like that. But when you move into the middle grades, you should be working on like more of like a mind games and the visual teaching strategies, like choice boards. You can do those in the young years too, but it is important to eliminate technology distractions. And that’s hard because –
Steve: 08:24 Adults are struggling with it.
Brenda: 08:24 Yes, just even last year – so for example, in my classroom, the students were given Chromebooks and when it was time for direct
instruction, oftentimes they still had that Chromebook open. And I would say, “okay, let’s put it in crocodile position during instruction.”
Brenda: 08:45 And that sounds silly, but it worked.
Steve: 08:49 I’ve heard teachers do that.
Brenda: 08:49 I’ll say we have a parking garage for our pencils. We actually do, it’s a parking garage and the students put their pencils in a parking garage. We do similar things with technology. I know my own children, we have a parking garage for their cell phones at certain times, like during dinner and things like that, because you think about this – conversation is missed. That communication, all of those things and how better to get our students knowing and even adults, executive functioning for adults, because that technology is taking so much of it. It’s stealing that creativity.
Steve: 09:34 So Brenda, I know that you are teaching a graduate-level course for teachers around executive functioning. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what’s in that course?
Brenda: 09:46 Oh, absolutely. In the course, we explore strategies that strengthen the idea of executive functioning skills in different areas of organization, planning, attention, and memory, as well as that behavioral emotional component. And then teaching kids to move into more of that self-directedness and then cognitive flexibility. And we also discuss ways to establish a culture of thinking in the classroom and different routines. We learn how to develop cognitive flexibility for different activities that we do as adults in the classroom that they can take back the next day and use. And it helps them to see that thinking from multiple perspectives.
Steve: 10:38 I’ll put a link to that course in the lead in to this podcast so that folks can find it. Go ahead and share it with folks so that those who are exercising while they’re listening will still catch it.
Brenda: 10:53 So they would simply go to plsclasses.com and there, they would select an online or on-site course. Now I’m teaching mine as on-site. And there’s ways that you have the opportunity to choose. Just like we practice what we preach with our students, we do that for our adults as well. And PLS 3rd Learning has many accredited college partners and all of the courses are research-based and they can take them right back to the classroom the next day.
Steve: 11:25 Terrific. Brenda, would you share a way that people can contact you directly with the questions they might have?
Brenda: 11:33 Absolutely. It would be email@example.com
Steve: 11:41 Alright. We’ll be sure to stick that in the lead-in as well. I’m wondering, signing off here Brenda, if there’s a last thought of encouragement that you have for teachers look looking at exploring executive functioning?
Brenda: 11:57 Yeah. I think that this course was developed and researched with such high efficacy and that it’s important for teachers to understand educators, to know that these are things that it’s not going to be a new thing. It is something that we do as best practice on a daily basis, but being conscious of what we’re doing and explicitly teaching them. So it’s not just a new thing. It’s going back to what we know as best
Steve: 12:33 What was going through my mind as I was listening to you, is the phrase empowering the learner.
Brenda: 12:39 Absolutely. And the couldn’t be any better than that, because we want our students to have that self-efficacy and if they cannot be confident learners and move into the 21st century and be successful, that’s what our ultimate goal is. They’re going to be taken care of us someday and running our country, and that’s what we want. So we might give the ability to do that.
Steve: 13:05 Thanks, Brenda. I appreciate the time you’ve shared with us.
Brenda: 13:11 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 13:13 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. And don’t forget to visit plsclasses.com to learn how you can further your education and career with online on-site and remote courses.