September 21, 2012

“This American Life” Meets Engaging Minds

On September 14, the popular NPR show “This American Life” did their annual Back to School episode. Rather than sticking to the traditional “three R’s,” host Ira Glass and guest Paul Tough (education reporter and author of the book How Children Succeed) focused on non-cognitive skills which Glass defines as “qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control – soft skills [or] character.”

In the first segment of the show, entitled No, These Things Will Not Be on the Final Exam, Glass and Tough discuss the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who studied poor, minority students and the effects of a “chaotic existence” on school performance. One of the results of Harris’ study was as follows:

When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids’ brains. And especially affected in this situation is a specific part of the brain that’s called the prefrontal cortex, which is where a lot of these non-cognitive skills happen– self-control and impulse control, certain kinds of memory and reasoning. Skills they call executive functions. If you’re in a constant state of emergency, that part of your brain just doesn’t develop the same.

Basically, Harris found that kids who were exposed to ongoing “trauma” (as she puts it) at an early age never properly developed executive function skills.

The good news is that this can be addressed and remedied, both for kids who have identifiable environmental issues and those who just have poor executive functioning skills without any known genesis. One of the other guests for the “This American Life” segment was economist James Heckman, who while studying non-cognitive skills within the framework of improving schools and scholastic performance recognized that these skills could be learned.

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One of the most important ways of addressing executive functioning skill deficits was for the student to have a mentor or adult to encourage and work with the student. This is one of the many reasons why Engaging Minds embraces the one-on-one tutoring approach.

Another important means of working with students with executive functioning disorders is to create order and organization and a sense of control over the chaos that exists both internally in the minds of these students and externally, in their school and home working environments. This is why Engaging Minds encourages the use of tools such as graphic organizers for structuring writing assignments and assignment notebooks for recording homework, particularly those projects that are long-term and may require the cataloguing of multiple steps.

It is also why “calendaring” overall—the documenting of not just home and schoolwork but ALL of the activities a student needs to keep track of—is a cornerstone of our approach to working with students. We will go into more detail about this important tool in an upcoming blog.