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Thoughts on Executive Skills

by Dr. Ari Goldstein, Cognitive Solutions Learning Center,
When I first began teaching special education in the early 1990's, the term executive functioning was unheard of. As a young teacher, I very quickly saw the importance of developing underlying cognitive skills to help my students learn more efficiently. They benefitted tremendously from learning better strategy usage, time management, organization, and self-regulation skills. Over time, I developed a series of exercises and activities designed to strengthen these aspects of functioning in the classroom. What I found was that by developing their underlying cognitive skills and meta-cognition, I was able to help my students become better learners. We had no terminology or training programs for this, it was just good psychoeducational practice.

As I transitioned into private practice in the late 1990's, I continued much of this work in a one on one fashion with the students I was tutoring. Around the year 2000, the term executive functioning began to emerge with some popularity in psychology and education circles. As I read more and more research on the subject, I began to understand that the underlying skills I had been working on with my students all along were, in fact, executive functioning skills. Good teachers have been working to develop these skills since the dawn of teaching, but finally there was a terminology and construct associated with what they had been doing in the classroom. I became so interested in the subject that I spent a good portion of my Ph.D. work investigating executive skills and their impact on learning and functioning.

Fast forward fifteen years. Executive functioning is now a buzz word heard throughout the academic community. Every parent, teacher, and school is now concerned with executive functioning. As a practitioner, I see this as a wonderful development. Unfortunately in our fast paced and testing based school system, the focus is primarily on test scores. We expect students to memorize and regurgitate information, but we do very little to develop their underlying self-monitoring, problem solving, and regulation skills. Schools are now more aware of executive functions, and their crucial impact on learning and problem solving throughout the life span. Many private tutors also work on executive functioning, however too often the focus is very heavy on organization skills and time management, with little work done to develop underlying frontal lobe functioning (Executive skills make their "home" in the frontal lobe of the brain).

Executive skills develop at different rates in different children. However, true executive difficulties do exist in many students, and tend to be even more prevalent in students with learning disabilities or disorders of attention (ADD/ADHD). Effective development of executive skills lies in not just teaching students how to organize themselves, but helping them develop into stronger problem solvers with better self-regulation skills. This can be done through a range of remediation programs, including Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment, Quantitative EEG training (neurofeedback), meditation practice, and one on one skill based work designed specifically to strengthen frontal lobe functioning.

Finding a good learning specialist is crucial to the process of proper executive functions development in students who exhibit these difficulties. This differs from traditional tutoring, which tends to focus on the development of academic skills without work aimed at developing underlying areas of cognitive and information processing. A good specialist will take a very individualized approach to the development of executive skills, working to help strengthen frontal lobe functioning and helping students develop a tool-belt of skills for stronger school based functioning.

Dr. Ari Goldstein is the executive director of Cognitive Solutions Learning Center in Chicago. For more information on Cognitive Solutions Learning Center, please visit us online at www.helpforld.com.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help people find the right help for their special needs children and teens. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, type of special education professional, specific special education professional, or educational methods.

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