In a recent paper, Executive Function: Implications for Education (Zelazo, D; Blair, C.B., and Willoughby, M. T., 2016), authors explored the research surrounding executive function (EF) skills and the implications for educational researchers and, to some extent, classroom teachers.
The authors defined executive function as —
“Attention-regulating skills that make it possible to sustain attention, keep goals and information in mind, refrain from responding immediately, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, consider the consequences of different behaviors, reflect on past experiences, and plan for the future.”
How C&C Mentors Enhance Executive Function Skills
Upon reading this list of behaviors, experienced mentors will recognize that much of their work with students during the “connect” component of Check & Connect focuses on building and/or enhancing the aforementioned EF skills.
One of the goals of Check & Connect mentors is to problem-solve with students. Mentors know that students who are at risk of disengaging from school and eventually dropping out are navigating difficult environments, be it school, home, or community. Mentors also know that these same students need support to “bounce back,” stay in school, and re-engage with learning (see Don’t Call Them Dropouts by America’s Promise Alliance, 2014). Mentors can facilitate this process by focusing on EF skills, such as goal-setting, impulse control, and importantly, reflecting on past experiences.
Reflection refers to a student’s ability to “notice challenges, pause, consider their options, and put things into context prior to responding.” This period of reflection allows children to “exercise their EF skills (i.e., cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control)” (see Executive Function: Implications for Education by Zelazo et al. 2016, pg. 6).
Mentors may also recognize that the 5-step problem-solving model referred to in Check & Connect trainings and in the Implementing with Fidelity manual asks students, in a sense, to access those very same skills. In particular, the first two steps of the problem-solving model access EF skills:
- Stop. Think about the problem.
- Consider options and consequences.
Through explicit teaching and guided practice that emphasizes reflection, mentors can address and students can potentially enhance the skills of pausing, responding before thinking, and considering the consequences of actions.
Enhancing Efficacy in Mentors
Not surprisingly, pausing and taking the time to reflect can be beneficial to mentors, also. Mentors can show they are listening and understanding what their students are saying by simply pausing after a student has spoken. This brief silence is powerful and communicates to students that what they said was worthy of reflection and consideration.
Similar to the concept of “wait time” during classroom instruction, where a teacher’s goal is to increase the quantity and quality of responses from students, pausing shows one is listening. It also allows the student to talk uninterrupted and to perhaps dive deeper into their own thinking. Pausing also allows the mentor time to respond in a thoughtful manner, whether it be with a well-crafted paraphrase or question that probes for specificity or clarity.
Now, anyone who has purposefully focused on incorporating a pause into a conversation or their instruction, more often than not initially feels awkward and uncomfortable. Sad to say, many of our conversations do not include even a minimal amount of pausing; consequently, any silence seems enormous. However, when mentors pause they are modeling positive listening behaviors, including such EF skills as pausing, reflecting on past experiences, and considering consequences.
Check & Connect mentors identify and enhance protective factors in our students’ environments. This process encourages the development of a strong foundation for academic, social, and emotional competencies. In the search for protective factors, mentors can direct their attention to EF skills, which protect students against the academic risks of extreme poverty (Masten, et al 2012; Obradovic 2010). In fact, researchers have found that children with good EF skills showed evidence of resilience despite experiencing homelessness or high mobility. Ultimately, when mentors “connect” with students, they should keep in mind the EF skills of pausing and reflecting, which can enhance the quality of mentor-student conversations and benefit students.
What Do You Think?
In what ways have you helped students develop executive function skills, such as pausing, reflecting on past experiences, and considering consequences?
How might you intentionally incorporate pausing into your conversations with students?
America’s Promise Alliance (2014). Don’t call them dropouts: Understanding the experiences of young people who leave high school before graduation.
Masten, A. S., Herbers, J. E., Desjardins, C. D., Cutuli, J. J., McCormick, C. M., Sapienza, J. K., Long, J. D., & Zelazo, P. D. (2012). Executive function skills and school success in young children experiencing homelessness. Educational Researcher, 41(9): 375-384. doi: 10.3102/0013189×12459883.
Obradović, J. (2010). Effortful control and adaptive functioning of homeless children: Variable-focused and person-focused analyses. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(2): 109-117.
Zelazo, P. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education (NCER 2017-2000). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. This report is available on the Institute website at http://ies.ed.gov/.
About the Author: Joseph Angaran is a national Check & Connect trainer at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.
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