When was the last time you practiced getting ready for work or school? Or practiced putting the dishes in the dishwasher instead of the sink, or practiced putting your keys, wallet or purse in the spot designated for them? My guess is probably never.
As we prepared for the start of the 2023-2024 school year, we started with the goal to better understand and support the executive functioning needs of our students. Understood.org defines executive functioning as:
“Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. “
All developing humans have immature executive function systems. Students with learning differences have a much higher rate of delayed executive functioning development than their peers, meaning that their executive functioning is impacted in important ways and could be delayed in its development by a couple of years. Consequently, the tasks that we expect them to be capable of may be more difficult and sometimes impossible given their current development. The good news is that a delay in executive functioning is not usually a deficit and it can be trained through practice. The bad news is most educational institutions do not explicitly teach executive functioning as a skill and students are expected to pick up on executive functioning expectations and tasks through observation and experience alone….That goes about as well as you would expect it too. Just like our students will not learn to read through simple exposure, they will often not be able to execute executive functioning tasks without specific guidance and support.
I once heard a local ADHD expert say that the gulf between expectation and ability is conflict and that statement stuck with me. When a person cannot live up to an expectation, they feel internal conflict with their environment and conflict within themselves, often resulting in negative self-talk as they “fail” to meet external expectations. In addition, it shows up as conflict for those around them. Parents, teachers, and community members may experience frustration when tasks are not completed, instructions are not followed, and reminders, prompts, and demands don’t seem to make a difference.
In order to better understand how this plays out in schools, we brought in Dr. Jeff Sosne from the Children’s Program. Dr. Sosne is an expert in student learning differences and the role that Executive Functioning plays in learning and navigating life. Park Academy staff spent two days learning and collaborating as we explored our understanding of executive functioning dynamics, solidified the practices we knew were working, and learned new ways to support students with impacted executive functioning systems.
While it would be impossible to distill all the work done in those two days, a couple of things stood out to me. First, how skilled our staff and faculty already are at understanding and supporting our student’s executive functioning needs and second, how much more we could be doing. By the end, we were seeing our practices through a new and important filter that can be summed up by a few questions…..”Have you practiced that?” not, “have you done it?” or “have you talked about it?”….but “have you truly practiced it.” Dyslexia interventions are rooted in intentional practice and mastery. Practice leads to routine and we all know that it is very possible to develop routines that are either unproductive or even harmful. Healthy, purposeful practice leads to a healthy, purposeful routine! With that in mind, it is truly surprising what we expect our students to do without practice or mastery. So, we ask ourselves, have we truly and thoroughly practiced…..
- writing down our assignments and placing homework in the right spot?
- lining up for lunch and transitioning back into class?
- asking for help when needed?
- showing our teacher that they have our full attention?
- showing a peer that they have our full attention?
- being aware of your body and self-talk?
- being aware and in control of our emotions?
- transitioning from group work to individual work?
- Answering the question “what did you do today”?
- Getting ready for school in the morning?
Next time a student, or yourself, struggles with a task, especially one that you “expect” them to be able to do (because you have told them 1 million and 1 times!), ask yourself if you or they have practiced that skill. Ask yourself if there is a gulf between the expectation and the ability. And then, go practice. Even if it seems odd, silly or uncomfortable. In fact, do it because it feels odd, silly, or uncomfortable. With this kind of practice it is much more likely that it will be remembered and the skills involved will improve.
These are the kinds of filters through which we view how students navigate a school day at Park Academy and I think the students are better served for it. Thank you Dr. Sosne for thought provoking support and training. We will continue to practice how we practice!
Resources “Pay Attention to Attention.”