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Hastings and Bridge Put the Fun in Executive Functioning

Does your child have trouble:

Starting or completing school projects?
Keeping track of assignments?
Staying focused on a task?
Remembering what she’s read?
Taking his turn to speak?

If so, your child is facing the challenges of executive function – and has lots of company. Executive function (EF) refers to a diverse array of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain's frontal lobe. These skills fall into the two broad categories of metacognition and self-regulation. They enable us to focus and manage our time and attention – for example, to break down a long-term project into steps; to prioritize and move between tasks; and to make mid- course corrections. One Harvard publication describes executive function as the brain’s equivalent of an air traffic control system at a busy airport that manages the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways.

The development of executive function begins in childhood and continues into early adulthood. These skills become increasingly important as kids move through the elementary grades and into middle and high school. The subject matter becomes more complicated and diverse, long- term projects enter the picture, and students are expected to manage assignments more independently. Some children show signs of difficulty with EF by the early grades, and many kids struggle with tasks like those listed above by the time they’re in late elementary school. Thanks to a 2013 LEF Program Grant, teachers and specialists at Hastings and Bridge Schools have deepened their understanding of executive function and learned how to address the challenges associated with it by incorporating EF-building strategies into their classrooms every day.

The project is directed by Kristine Wiltz and Karen Morin, a special educator and speech pathologist at Hastings, and is guided by a team of 13 general education teachers, special education teachers, and speech and language specialists at the two schools. The project was inspired in part by a workshop on EF that had taken place at Estabrook several years earlier, and grew out of Response to Intervention meetings at Hastings and Bridge.

“Executive function is all about using your time wisely, being able to prioritize, organizing what you need, and picturing what your project will look like when its finished,” explains Hastings Principal Louise Lipsitz. “We assume all children can do this, but many students can’t. Executive function is not about cognition. It’s not about language ability. It’s about the fact that students are full of multistep tasks and they’re being evaluated all the time. If all you look at is the finished product, you’re missing the process, a process that can be generalized to other tasks, not just in school but also for getting ready for hockey practice, or making sure you have your instrument and your music for band.”

Through the LEF grant, Bridge and Hastings staff have received training from nationally respected EF experts, including Dr. Christopher Kaufman, who last summer guided an all-day workshop, “Moving the Frontal Lobe to the Front of the Class: The Teacher’s Guide to Executive Function,” for a capacity crowd of 60 general education and special education teachers from all six elementary schools, as well as several principals. The workshop drew raves -- “phenomenal,” “amazing”, and “exceptional” were typical participant reactions. Carol Pilarski, LPS’ Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development, says that Dr. Kaufman “made clear the connections between brain development and executive function in ways that helped teachers understand whether a particular problem a student is experiencing is an executive function issue or a developmental issue,” and he provided approaches and tools to help teachers help their students to address these challenges.

Two other nationally recognized EF experts, Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen, followed Dr. Kaufman’s workshop with several events targeted to Hastings and Bridge faculty. In October they delivered a webinar, then a full day of on-site demonstrations, co-teaching, and debriefings at both schools. The two modeled lessons at every grade in each school, demonstrating how teachers could tweak lessons to help their students build EF skills. This January, Kristin Jacobsen returned for a follow-up session that focused in part on incorporating EF techniques into writing instruction.

Research on EF indicates that for students to improve their executive function, its routines and techniques must be embedded consistently into the general education classroom. The Bridge and Hastings principals are enthusiastic about the “Get Ready, Do, Done” approach that Ward and Jacobsen taught and modeled. Louise Lipsitz reports that, “Now, when I go into classrooms, I see visible evidence of teachers helping children think about what they need to get ready to do an assignment, what it looks like when they are engaged in a task, and what it will look like when the task is completed.” Color-coding and other visual representations – such as stick figures – of the different stages of planning help both students and teachers be more aware of the steps involved in completing a task.

“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in EF areas,” Kristine Wiltz explains. “Now, when we meet to talk about a particular child, we’re consciously looking at executive function issues. Since executive function doesn’t fully develop until the 20s, we support them as much as we can, understanding what’s possible at different ages. These skills essentially help children learn how to learn. If kids can start learning EF strategies at a younger age, then these things will become more automatic and hopefully over time require less adult support to maintain.” Now, every class at every grade level at Hastings and Bridge uses at least some of the EF strategies the teachers have learned through the grant.

Hastings and Bridge have also used funds from the LEF grant and from PTA mini-grants to purchase classroom materials that support EF skill building, such as specialized clocks that are shaded to indicate how much time students have left to complete a task, thus helping them track their progress and manage their time.

To help parents reinforce EF strategies at home, Hastings is using part of its 2013 LEF School Community Grant to have Sarah Ward address Hastings and Bridge parents on March 27th on “Promoting Independence for Your Child At Home: Organization, Time Management, and Perseverance.”

The LEF grant has funded not only professional development events, but also ongoing collaboration and support. The teachers communicate regularly with their colleagues within and between schools, and the 13 teachers on the grant team serve as ongoing EF resources for their fellow teachers. The team is developing a comprehensive toolkit of strategies and resources to support development of each type of EF skill at each level.

Bridge Principal Meg Colella notes that the way the LEF grant project has been carried out – with a combination of presentations, co-instruction, debriefing, and ongoing support – has been especially effective. “This has been embedded professional development,” she says, “which is what works best.” She adds, “What was amazing was the way this project brought the two schools together. Hastings and Bridge have been working together for years on professional development,” but this project took it to a new level.

The project has affected almost 1,000 students and 100 teachers in the two schools. “We’ve had such a wonderful response from teachers and parents,” says Kristine Wiltz. “Even if you are targeting one set of kids, all students benefit from it.”

Assistant Superintendent Carol Pilarski says that the response from teachers across the district to last summer’s all-day workshop on EF, and to the work that has taken place through the grant, has been so enthusiastic that, “There is a collective understanding that in the FY 2015 professional development budget, we will devote more attention to executive function.” This LEF project, she says, “speaks to how a group or individual initiates a grant, and it becomes contagious.”

“This kind of learning exemplifies the value of LEF,” says Hastings’ Louise Lipsitz. “It’s not something the school budget would cover. This grant has been such a powerful, positive support to the students and teachers of Lexington, and through the LEF School Community Grant, it brings in parents, as well. This is what LEF is all about.”

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