What is Executive Functioning? Strengthening the Ties Between Organizational Thinking and Empowered Reading
For some struggling readers, the source of the difficulty is clear. But what about students whose reading struggles seem to vary from one day to the next? For example, a student might quickly and correctly answer comprehension questions only to seem “lost” when it’s time to write a reader response, while another student may be completely unable to recall the information they read the day before. Still another might be stressed and overwhelmed at the thought of completing a reading assignment, despite being more than capable of doing the work.
What do we make of students who seem to have the reading skills they need but still somehow fall behind? According to Dr. Kelly B. Cartwright of Christopher Newport University, these students' reading struggles may be rooted in their executive functioning skills. In order to help these students, we need to understand what executive functioning is—and how we can strengthen these thinking skills in our students.
What is executive functioning?
Simply put, executive functioning is an umbrella term for any skill that allows students to plan their actions and work toward a goal. We tend to think of executive functioning as encompassing three main areas: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. When we think about each of these elements, it’s easy to see how some common reading struggles are actually issues with executive functioning.
Working memory: Holding information in mind for reference is a critical part of reading, particularly as students learn to read longer texts. After all, understanding the plot of chapter three often hinges on recalling what was learned in chapters one and two. For students who have trouble with executive functioning, comprehension might require a lot of backtracking and re-reading.
Mental flexibility: Every time a student shifts their attention from one task to another, they’re exercising mental flexibility. Reading even the simplest of texts requires a reader to shift between many tasks, so a student who struggles with mental flexibility might get “stuck” at one task—such as sounding out letters and blending words—and have difficulty moving on to another step, such as linking a word to its meaning.
Self-control: Inhibiting impulsive behavior and resisting distractions is essential to our executive functioning, so readers need to block out their environments to stay on task. Students also need to avoid becoming distracted by non-essential information or memories stirred up by their reading. For example, reading a diary of an explorer’s journey of survival through the wilderness could call up many exciting ideas. Students who have trouble with executive functioning might start daydreaming instead of continuing on with their reading!
Now that we know how executive functioning affects reading, what can we do to help our students? Fortunately, there are many ways to guide students as they plan, organize, and work toward their reading goals. Moreover, because we all use executive functioning, we can all benefit from strategies that help us strengthen those skills. Read on for our top tips to build students’ executive functioning.
Increase physical activity: A 2012 piece published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review theorized that aerobic exercise had the potential to improve executive functioning. With this in mind, consider breaking up seatwork time with chances to move and stretch—Eric Jensen’s book Teaching With The Brain in Mind has excellent suggestions for incorporating movement and exercise into the classroom to improve brain function. What's more, educational organizations such as Brain Gym and BrainSMART have even more resources for exercising the link between physical activity and mental acuity.
Scaffold organizational skills: Some students simply need to learn new strategies for staying organized and keeping their thoughts on track. Consider directly teaching these skills to your students by modeling note-taking, mind-mapping, and structured reading time. In an article for the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Landmark College’s lead education specialist, Linda Hecker, demonstrated how educators can shape their students’ reading skills using Thomas Brown’s model of executive functioning.
Model SMART goals: For some students, struggles with executive functioning cause difficulties before they even sit down to read; these students might need help to plan and organize their reading time, particularly when tackling longer assignments. To teach students how to exercise self-control when planning their reading time, demonstrate how to create goals using the acronym SMART:
R: Relevant, Rigorous, Realistic, and Results-focused
T: Timely and Trackable
For example, a student who has difficulty finishing reading assignments on time might make the following SMART goal:
“For the next reading assignment, I will read two chapters per night for two weeks. That will allow me to complete all twenty-eight chapters and leave one week to write my book report and turn it in on time.”
By making their goal SMART, students are exercising their self-control and setting themselves up to succeed. In contrast, a more vague goal, such as “Read a twenty-eight–chapter novel and write a report in three weeks,” might seem daunting to a student who struggles with organization.
While it takes time and energy to strengthen executive functioning skills, students will reap the rewards in their reading. By modeling good organizational skills, structuring reading goals, and even including physical activity during class time, literacy educators can help students improve their executive functioning. In time, increased working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control may just turn some struggling students into empowered readers.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What is your school or district doing to help students develop their executive functioning skills? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic.
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