November 6, 2012

Parents as Partners — Nine Key Strategies (Part 2 of 3)

In last week’s blog, we delved into the first three of Dr. Peg Dawson’s excellent list of strategies for improving executive function. As we discussed in Part One, these approaches provide an opportunity for parents, teachers and tutors to work with students to develop their executive function skills with an emphasis on increased independence and growth in confidence. Here is Dr. Dawson’s list, as detailed in her article “Principles for Improving Executive Skills” from the website Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities (these strategies are also a part of her book Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential).

  1. Consider your child’s developmental level
  2. Move from the external to the internal
  3. Use your child’s innate drive for mastery and control
  4. Modify tasks to match capacity
  5. Teach deficient skills
  6. Provide the minimum support necessary for success
  7. Use incentives
  8. Provide support until success is achieved
  9. Gradually cut back support and incentives

This week we will focus on the next three items on the list and how parents and tutors can effectively help students work to enhance their executive function skills. While we had thought we would be able to cover the entire rest of the list this week, we had so many good ideas we wanted to share with you that we decided to make this blog post a three-parter and give it the time and attention it truly deserves.

Modify Tasks to Match Capacity

For most students, the pull to do something other than the academic task-at-hand is great; for students struggling with executive function deficits that pull is even greater. By breaking a task into smaller, manageable chunks (something we help our students do during our sessions at Engaging Minds) and making the first chunk a task that is easily accomplished, two positive results ensue. First, the student has an initial sense of accomplishment that will help bolster his/her effort throughout subsequent tasks. Secondly, with an immediate “success” a student is able to see a direct result of his/her effort. At Engaging Minds, we talk a lot about strengthening instrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from within) rather than extrinsic motivation (external rewards like money, TV time, computer time). We’ve found that if you can help your child set short, attainable goals – and they can see the immediate benefits of reaching that first goal – s/he is more likely to engage more deeply. Additionally, for many students, it’s just getting started that presents the greatest challenge. By setting short, attainable goals, you encourage your child to initiate action and get the assignment underway.

Teach Deficient Skills

We too often expect children struggling with attention and organizational difficulties to just pick up the necessary skills to do their school work; after all, isn’t that part of the reason they are in school in the first place? The truth is that for many students – and especially for those with executive function deficits — these basic skills must be explicitly taught. For example, during a given session, an Engaging Minds tutor might use a graphic organizer to help a student plan how she is going to write about a certain novel for Language Arts class. Rather than just expecting the student to know how to use this tool, the tutor might guide the student to fill in a couple of key points and then ask the student to provide additional information on his/her own (“The main characters are Jamie and Claudia; who are some other important characters?” “Some of the plot is set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; can you fill in two more locations where the story takes place?). The same goes for mapping out a longer-term assignment, learning how to prioritize assignments for the day and the week, and keeping his/her backpack in order. Many kids need to be shown and guided in how to do these tasks which we often assume they can manage on their own. Once we teach these skills and appropriately reinforce them, it’s then a matter of getting students to include them as part of their repertoire of skills and strategies.

Provide the Minimum Support Necessary for Success

How much assistance to give a struggling student is a delicate balancing act: give too much support and the student isn’t learning the necessary skills and give too little and the student may feel overwhelmed and give up. Taking cues from the individual student is a key part of figuring out how to attain this balance, and it is one of the reasons that one-on-one tutoring is such an effective means for helping students improve executive function skills. The ability to have an actual dialogue with the student, as we do in our tutoring sessions, and get and give feedback and change the amount of intervention based on the needs of the individual student and the complexity of the task at hand is crucial to helping the student work towards increasing independence and confidence in his/her abilities. We believe so strongly that each child is different and unique that we only offer one-on-one tutoring sessions. This approach, as opposed to using a group tutoring session or working from a set protocol, places the focus on the individual and meets each students very particular needs.

Next week we will look at the last three items on Dr. Dawson’s list. If you have any comments, suggestions or stories to share we encourage you to comment on the blog. This is your space to help your fellow parents, teachers and tutors – and likewise, if you have suggestions for future blogs we welcome your input.