Monday, October 31, 2016

Executive Functioning--What's all the buzz about?

For the last 20 years or so, more and more research has been devoted to examining the "executive functioning" of humans. In laymen's terms, executive functioning is basically our capacity to self-manage. Staying organised, task initiation and follow-through, controlling impulses, memory (think remembering 2-3 step directions), and being mentally flexible all fall under the umbrella of executive functioning. Of course, all of this research has corresponded nicely to the rise in mental health diagnoses in children, more specifically Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children with these diagnoses struggle with self-control/regulation and with tasks involving planning, setting goals, time management and keeping their belongings organised, among other social-emotional challenges.

I managed to sneak in some lessons about executive skills with Mr. Lewis and Ms. Meyer's classes a few weeks back when I taught them about how exercise affects the brain. To illustrate the concept, specifically self-control, I had the student's watch a video documenting a famous (and many times replicated) experiment titled, the Marshmallow Test. Check it out; the girls LOVED it.....and then wanted to take part in it!

I also asked for a couple of "risk takers" to engage in a little test (Stroop Color Word Test) that I had borrowed to demonstrate the brain's ability to cope with "distractors," ignore impulses and remain focused. I had students read the words aloud from the following chart, as quickly as they could. One student was also chosen to be the timer.


Initially, the brave volunteers were able to read the words quickly and without hesitation: RED, GREEN, BLUE, YELLOW, etc. 

But then, I switched it up a bit and asked them to read the COLORS of the words as opposed to the words themselves: GREEN, YELLOW, WHITE, PINK, etc.

The result? It took them almost double the amount of time in some cases to get through the chart! What each student described afterwards was as predicted: it was REALLY HARD ignoring the word and just focusing on the color. They were not only distracted, but they had to control their impulse to read the words. What a perfect example of executive functioning at work!

So, what's the connection to exercise? Well, here it is in a nutshell: exercise can increase our self-management skills! Not only does more exercise increase the blood flow, but it has positive effects on our brain's gray and white matter, each of which plays a role in attention, memory and, as a result, learning. It can also help parts of the brain "talk" to each other with increased speed, which allows us to "think" more efficiently.

Here is a great graphic that I showed to grade 3 students that clearly shows the increased amount of brain activity after a bit of exercise. 

As children get older, their executive skills inevitably get better and most learn to compensate for weaknesses. As adults, we know when we need to make lists to stay organised or write reminders to ourselves to get specific tasks done. Sometimes, kids need a little help in this realm, and can often benefit from small accommodations. I really love checklists, and these can be used for any routine or task (home or at school). They are really easy to create and personalize. Here are some examples:

Just like anything else, skills that are practiced end up being more refined, so parents play a significant role in their development. There are countless books for parents on this topic, so don't hesitate to consult the reviews on amazon if you feel like you could use a bit of help with your child. One book I've recommended (and have on my bookshelf) is Smart but Scattered, by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. I've also heard great feedback on the book That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, by Ana Homayoun. Though written mainly for boys, reviews indicate that the strategies/tips are just as applicable to girls. 

As always, if there are any concerns you'd personally like to discuss, please feel free to reach out.

~Ms. Carnright

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