This is special newsletter for me. Not only is it an opportunity to consolidate some critical points about teaching and raising the current generation of youth, it is also the 10th anniversary issue of Family Matters! It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since I first began writing these articles and communicating with kindred spirits around the world. To those who have been reading since the beginning – thank you! And to those who have more recently join the conversation, very glad to have you along! The topics covered in these newsletter reflect the many questions and comments received. This issue focuses on critical elements of executive skills teaching and modeling.
Although executive functions are now widely talked about online, in books, and at schools, there are ongoing developments in how we think about coaching executive functions. Here, I want to review what I believe are eight essential considerations in connecting with young people in such a way that their executive skills are enhanced. I don’t think I would have made any of these considerations a primary discussion 8 years ago when I wrote No Mind Left Behind, the first trade book to be published in the United States on executive functions. At that time I realized that executive functions were a major common denominator in different types of learning and development. But I could not have predicted what a major concern executive functions would become for all those involved in teaching and raising young people. I’m happy for this realization, but eager to discuss formative and new ideas about the application of teaching and coaching strategies. Let’s get started:
- Coaching Must Be Integral
The very first “must” is to make the coaching of executive functions integral to every other aspect of teaching and communication. It is not productive to teach executive functions within a small designated period of the school day, and then hope that information is consolidated and applied in other parts of the school day. Far more effective is to continually reference executive skills as they are relevant to the task at hand. Hint: this is much easier if everyone shares a basic, common vocabulary of executive skills. If you haven’t printed out the PDF of the 8 Pillars from my website, then I would strongly suggest that you do that, and post it in your classroom. Parents may choose to post this in a child’s room or on the refrigerator. If we are all on the same page, sharing a vocabulary of what executive functions are, we will be talking to each other, rather than across each other. Great coaches consistently rely upon a shared set of terms, because it makes it easier to trigger the desired set of associations with those terms – as they are referenced. When teachers are assigning homework, or advising students about upcoming tests, that is the time to be referencing the executive skills that will be useful in preparing for those tasks. Another example: the beginning of the school day is an excellent time to remind students of important executive skills that underlie classroom success. As students are reminded of those skills throughout the day, we incrementally reinforce their self-awareness and metacognitive capabilities.
- Continuous Verbal Feedback
This strategy alone will dramatically improve your connection with students, and your chances of fostering academic success. One of the hallmarks of great coaches, whether it be on the athletic field or in the classroom, is that they provide continuous, nonjudgmental, emotionally neutral, verbal feedback. The feedback lets students know what they are doing well, and what they need to improve. In this way, teachers are also providing ample, specific guidance about how to do something better. Students repeatedly express their appreciation for teachers who adopt this strategy. It feels collegial, caring, and is massively useful. In my view, school should reduce the anxiety of not knowing exactly what to do by making the elements of good performance explicit. There is no substitute for repetition (see The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle). We should teach with the most forgetful student in mind because everyone else will benefit from what we do for the most challenged student. Constant verbal feedback, whether it comes from parents or teachers, is like a tape running through a young person’s mind, continually bringing them back to the foundations of process success: focus, organization, time management, and analysis. The current generation is neurologically challenged to efficiently make the leap from concepts to application. Great teachers are the bridge between those “islands,” and your ability to articulate the steps and their application make all the difference in the world.
- Show, Rather than Explain
Following the advice above, it is more useful to demonstrate executive skills than to explain them. We seem to more easily grasp this idea when it comes to explaining academic concepts. For example, an algebra teacher recognizes the need to illustrate an algebraic equation on a board, rather than merely describe the equation to students. The same goes for organization and planning. We should explicitly assist students in filling out planners, getting themselves organized at their desk, and in helping understand how to begin various tasks. These activities build the alliance between teacher and student, and reinforce how excellent work habits are part of the code of a classroom. The more specific we can be in demonstrating how to make decisions about where and how to begin, the more productive students will be. With the youngest children, where learning processes are foundational to everything that will follow, this is even more important. Being shown how to organize a backpack in front of a teacher-coach is extremely useful – and highly memorable as a symbol of attachment between teacher and student. The natural industry of young children is fostered and reinforced when we take the time to physically demonstrate a range of skills in the classroom and at home.
- Task Tone
The delivery of executive skills guidance is shaped by tone more than content. I think thisis hard to believe for many people, including teachers who may be highly invested in the quality of an explanation. But the simple fact is that our brains sense tone much faster than they make sense of words and syntax. Tone sets the table for the consolidation of content. Without an effective tone, much effort and insight is lost. In my new website, I have established a video archive and one of the first videos uploaded is a discussion and short demonstration of task tone. I have developed the concept of task tone over the course of many years working out how to best communicate with boys. If you have heard me speak, you have undoubtedly heard me demonstrate task tone — which most people find highly amusing. Well, it may be amusing, but darn if it doesn’t work extremely well! Get past the novelty and seeming silliness, and you’ll discover deeper levels of connection. Task tone may be somewhat more important in communicating with boys than girls, but I certainly believe many girls find it effective and useful as well. The basic idea of task tone is that emotion is removed from the voice so that people can hear the substance of the communication more clearly. There is a suggestion of respect and seriousness in task tone which helps teachers and students to “seize the moment.” What I mean by this is that task tone generates a degree of intensity that activates learning, and makes it easier to reflect on what has been said. Task tone helps to eliminate defensiveness and distraction. Please use task tone to the greatest extent possible. Even if it sounds a little silly as you first begin to apply it, you will find a task tone that works for you. Task tone does not have to sound the same for every person, it just has to be a personal variation in how you normally communicate.
- Attention is Social
How long will we cling to antiquated notions of where attention comes from? The most egregious myth about attention is the simplistic idea that attention lives in your brain, and that if you are inattentive something has to be done about your brain. Given such an assumption, is there any wonder that we are a medically focused society, determined to medicate every type of mental difference? I’m not an anti-medication person. I am deeply grateful for the physicians that I partner with to help young people who can truly benefit from medications. But so often, we go too far, and don’t consider the more primary obstacles to focus. We must understand that attention is inherently social. Attention exists in the spaces between people, more than it does within the brain of any one person. When the “space” between people is effectively managed through good communication and tempo, it’s so much easier for young people to stay focused! Even the kind of task tone I discussed above is a way of seizing the moment and animating the space between two people, so that attention is activated. I try to demonstrate how this is done in my presentations, and I will be making more videos about this challenge in the weeks and months to come.
If you haven’t thought about this idea, please take some time to reflect on it now. It will change everything about how you approach the challenge of connecting with young people and getting them to remember the important things that you have to say. It requires you to loosen up and be more flexible, more animated in how you present yourself. You must be aware of how you use your physical self: the tone of your voice, facial expressions, tempo, and everything else that might affect your ability to engage another person’s mental orbit. We shouldn’t continually offload the burden of inattention on the person who is seemingly distracted. I feel as though this is an American reflex – “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take care of your problem.” It’s an attitude that has roots in puritanism and frontier self-reliance, but which seems much less relevant to a generation whose minds are sculpted by carbohydrates, social media, and a culture of self-absorption.
- Structured Opportunities for Reflection and Analysis
On a conceptual level, the underlying goal of building executive skills is to improve metacognition. Basically, this means enhancing a person’s ability to think about their own mental processes. One path to this type of capability is persistent, constructive coaching. That sort of effort really helps kids in the “here and now” to connect the dots between what they are doing and the prospective outcome. For example, helping a student to get organized about what she or he needs to read, before answering a set of questions, and providing guidance about how to highlight information as the reading is done, will improve outcomes – the work produced will more closely approximate an individual’s true capability. But there is a group strategy which I have been strongly advocating for the past several years. Specifically, I believe there should be a designated time within a classroom for a group discussion about work habits, the atmosphere of instruction, and any strategies that may, or may not be, helping students. I think it’s useful to get students oriented to this type of gathering early in the school year. A good way to format this meeting is to reorganize the chairs and desks in a circle that emphasizes a community process time for exchanging ideas. Certainly the teacher should facilitate the discussion, but the idea is to get as many kids talking as possible about the learning process itself. They might comment on what kinds of visual strategies are most useful, or the tempo of instruction. It’s good to have a debate so that students recognize there may be discrepant needs within a single classroom. It’s also good for teachers to get direct feedback, and to get accustomed to the idea of teaching to the needs and interests of a particular class. Although it’s good to have an initial meeting early in the school year, class meetings should be held at regular intervals as a way of reinforcing what’s working, and as a kind of community caretaking. The great swath of middle school students who get lost during those critical years will definitely benefit.
- Grade and Review Process As Much As Outcome
So many discussions in education revolve around the importance of the teacher-student relationship. If we really want students to incorporate an executive mindset into their daily practice of being a student, then we should make sure that we bring some heft to that discussion by grading process skills as well as tests, papers, and projects. In elementary school this is often a sidebar on the report card – which unfortunately often reads as a moral judgment of the child than a meaningful analysis of learning process. Students at all levels need more instructive feedback, and need to be reminded that work habits are as integral to long-term success as the consolidation of content. If no process grade is assigned, I’m afraid students will assume that it’s “feel good,” non-essential feedback they don’t really need to take to heart. Assigning a grade to process helps to focus students on a specific set of skills, which need to be replicated on a consistent basis. This is not about rote learning – it’s about becoming a better, stronger person through a program of self-discipline and articulated priorities. Such an approach is a gift to students, not a consequence. It’s a way of focusing students on the big picture – the metacognitive skills that are the foundation of performance.
- Some Skills Can Be Coached, and Some Can’t
Increasingly, families consult with me about the value of executive skills coaches. Certainly, I recognize that these professionals have become more numerous in larger cities, and can potentially offer students a great opportunity to improve performance. However, I think it’s important to note that some executive skills are more amenable to coaching than others. Those executive skills that are applied at home, or in time outside of the immediate learning context, are the ones that benefit most from coaching. This would include: planning, organization, and time management. A coach can sit with a student and help him or her organize a strategy for how to allocate time, based on the importance or timeline of various tasks. Coaches are very helpful with prioritizing, which is a more analytical executive skill that is not context dependent.
Those executive skills that do not lend themselves well to coaching include: attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These skills are context dependent, and have to be taught in the moment where that skills needs to be executed. With these executive skills, we aretrying to create better reflexes and the capacity to self-correct more intuitively. I think this is best accomplished by a teacher who has the experience of observing a student’s typical approach over time, and who can anticipate pitfalls. All this being said, I am happy about the proliferation of executive coaches. Just a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard of executive skills coaches, with most families relying on traditional academic tutors for these highly specialized skills.
Anyone who needs a quick brush up on the 8 Pillars of Executive Function are is welcome to check out the new video on my website archive. Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the many resources on my new website, including an archive of all of my newsletters, and descriptions of the primary programs that I present to schools and community groups.
One new feature is a list of host organizations, any of which you are welcome to contact if you would like a reference for the value of my presentations. My blog is now part of the website, and I will be updating it more often. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions or comments. I thank you for being a reader of this newsletter, and for all that you do on behalf of the young people in your life.