Executive Function Challenges in the Classroom
Question: I am interested in learning more about developing and implementing effective classroom strategies to support students who have weak executive functions. More specifically, I would like to focus on two specific executive skills: task initiation and working memory. What interventions are recommended when a student has good problem-solving ability for a non-verbal task that is brief and highly structured, but cannot handle a complex task? How do I help a student who struggles with the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks? Can you provide articles, books and research concerning this issue?
Response: You pose interesting questions about how to manage executive function difficulties in the classroom. We highly recommend two books by Lynn Meltzer: Executive Function: Theory to Practice and Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom, which can expand on some brief suggestions based on our own classroom experiences at Landmark College.
For a student who can't handle a complex task despite good general problem-solving ability, we help the student develop the ability to micro-unit a task--that is, to break it down into a series of smaller, manageable steps. The University of Minnesota Libraries has an interactive assignment calculator on their website that helps students do this for long-range assignments. We suggest students enter the steps onto a template that gives check-off boxes for each step, so they can indicate when each step is completed. The template includes a due date or deadline for each step, with a Plan B box for a back-up date if the first deadline isn't met.
As far as holding information in memory during complex tasks, we suggest the student NOT try to hold much in memory, but "off-load" most of the information by writing it on file cards or reference sheets, so it is readily available, but not taking up too much "cognitive work space."