Executive Function: Flexible Thinking Strategies for Life-Long Success
I try to help Jan with her homework, but she gets frustrated when I show her an approach that may not be the same as the way she was taught in school. She gets stuck doing things over and over so that homework drags on for hours. (Parent of 6th grader)
Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to think flexibly and to shift approaches, is a critically important executive function process that may be especially problematic for students with learning and attention difficulties. Students who have difficulty shifting also struggle to cope with unexpected changes in their schedules, routines, or homework, and may be viewed by their parents and teachers as “rigid,” “stubborn,” or “single-minded.” The ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected situations improves when children begin to understand their learning profiles and they are taught appropriate executive function strategies.
Why Is Flexible Thinking So Important for Academic Performance?As students advance through the grades, they are required to interpret information in more than one way and to change their approaches and strategies when needed. As the curriculum complexity intensifies, flexible thinking becomes increasingly important for some of the following reasons:
- Reading comprehension requires students to go back and forth between the major themes and supporting details and to sift and sort information as they read.
- Written language requires students to balance the important concepts and main ideas with the supporting details they want to communicate in their writing.
- Math competency involves shifting between word meanings, procedures, and operations.
- Science and History require students to use context clues to prioritize and focus on the most relevant information.
- Foreign language learning necessitates that students shift between their native language and the language they are learning.
- Studying and test-taking require students to go back and forth between topics or problem types that are presented in different formats.
How Can Parents Help Children to Become Flexible Thinkers?Many of the following strategies can be embedded into daily activities at home, including homework and family (or solo) time:
- Activities with multiple-meaning words (such as “windy” or “scale”), word categories, and number puzzles can build children’s flexible approaches to language and numbers from the preschool years onwards (e,g., Amelia Bedelia books, word games).
- Visualizing and discussing jokes, riddles, puns, and ambiguous words which evoke humor can help children to recognize that ambiguities in language can affect meaning and that it is important to use context clues when reading. Parents can use car trips and dinner time conversations to have fun with jokes, riddles, puns, and multiple-meaning words. Some examples:
- What did the calculator say to the student? You can count on me.
- What do you get when you eat crackers in bed? A crumby night’s sleep.
- Reading comprehension: When children come across words or sentences that do not make sense to them, they should be encouraged to stop reading and ask themselves key questions such as:
- Is there a word or phrase that could have more than one meaning?
- Can I emphasize different parts of this sentence to change its meaning?
- Written language: When children become stuck and cannot write, they should be encouraged to use strategies to organize and prioritize to “unclog the funnel.” (See funnel image and explanation in “Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge.”)
- Graphic organizers help children to shift between the main ideas and supporting details.
- Three-column note-taking systems (e.g., the Triple Note Tote mentioned in “Executive Function: Organizing and Prioritizing Strategies for Life-Long Success,”) provide a format for children to record major themes, concepts, or questions in the first column, relevant details in the second column, and a memory strategy, such as a picture, in the third column.
- Templates help children to organize their ideas and to shift back and forth between the writing and checking stages.
- Math: Students often try to solve math problems in only one way and should be shown how to look for alternative approaches which may be more efficient. Multiple math formats help children to recognize that the presentation of problems may differ between class work, homework, and tests. Encourage children to recognize that they may need to shift from one operation (e.g., addition) to a different one (e.g., subtraction). They can ask themselves questions such as:
- Do I know more than one way to solve the problem?
- Does this look similar to anything I have seen before?
- Is this problem the same or different from the last problem?
- Studying for tests and quizzes: Children need to extract and memorize information from many sources, including textbooks, homework, and notes. Help your child to recognize that:
- She or he needs to study differently for different kinds of tests. A multiple-choice test requires a focus on details and facts whereas an essay question depends on “telling the story” rather than simply cramming in details.
- Different study strategies may be needed in different subject areas. For example, reviewing the major ideas in notes and textbooks will help students to prepare for a history test, but class work and past homework assignments are more important for math.
Parents can help children to become flexible thinkers and to reduce the information overload. When students learn to shift approaches flexibly, they can “unclog the funnel” (see “Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge,”) and their academic grades will begin to reflect their true potential.
- Executive function in education: From theory to practice by Lynn Meltzer (ed.)
- Promoting executive function in the classroom (What works for special-needs learners series) by Lynn Meltzer
- Strategies for success: Classroom teaching techniques for students with learning differences (2nd ed.) by Lynn Meltzer, Bethany Roditi, Joan Steinberg, et al.
- Parent guide to hassle-free homework by Judith Stein, Lynn Meltzer, Kalyani Krishnan, Laura Pollica, Bethany Roditi
Lynn Meltzer PhD, is the President and Director of Research at the Research Institute for Learning and Development (ResearchILD) and Director of Assessment at the Institute for Learning and Development. She holds appointments at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Tufts University. She is also a fellow and past-president of the prestigious International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. Her work includes numerous articles and books for professionals and parents with an emphasis on assessing and teaching executive function strategies.
Michael Greschler, MEd is the Senior Research Associate at the Research Institute for Learning and Development and the Assistant Program Coordinator of ResearchILD’s SMARTS Executive Function and Leadership Program. He has an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and 8 years of experience teaching academic skills to struggling students using fun, innovative techniques.
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