Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators by Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Margaret Foster

All teachers must deal with students who are unable to get organized, meet due dates, and plan ahead.  Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators is a concise, explicable guide that provides the necessary background and strategies for teachers to help these students. The root of these issues lies in the brain’s Executive Functions (EF), also known as executive skills.  These skills are the controlling processes we use to organize, plan, and make decisions, all to achieve a specific goal. Cooper-Kahn and Foster explain the complex concept of EF in terms applicable to the classroom environment, and provide countless approaches to strengthen these skills in students with executive weaknesses.

In Part I of the book, the authors break down EF and its components. Though neuroscientists would describe these terms differently, Cooper-Kahn and Foster organize the categories of EF in observable, classroom terms which include: planning and organizing, emotional control, self-monitoring, (task) initiation and shifting, task monitoring, inhibition and working memory. Someday these categories may be included on report cards under study skills or behavior. In typical children, their EF skills generally grow over time at the same rate as their level of academic challenge. In lower elementary school, younger children are building basic skills to manage themselves. With maturation, older students learn to absorb and process what is going on around them and, with practice, respond appropriately and independently to their environment.

Even with maturation, paying attention to the world around them can be difficult for some students. Effortful, selective attention is a resource that can be depleted. As a student uses his or her energy to pay attention to accomplishing a goal, the energy stores decrease. With unforeseen challenges, the energy may be used up faster than anticipated and it may be harder to regulate some executive functions. This effect is especially salient for children with certain conditions. The authors discuss common executive weaknesses observed in children with ADHD, ASD, specific learning disabilities, chronic stress, depression and anxiety. The given descriptions are key characteristics that teachers will encounter from year to year.

Regardless of existing conditions, Cooper-Kahn and Foster stress the importance of healthy habits to support proper EF development. They clarify that healthy habits will not miraculously alleviate all EF troubles, but poor health choices can worsen certain problems. Daily exercise, sound sleep, and good nutrition can create an optimal environment for the brain to carry out executive skills.  Other healthy behaviors allow for “brain breaks” to de-stress. One example is ART (attention restoration therapy) which can include taking a walk in nature or meditating to decompress.

The essence of Part II is the How, i.e. how to successfully implement practices that support EF growth. The authors first target general classroom practices to help about 80% of students improve in EF.  With consistent use of a purposeful combination of techniques, each student will make vast improvements. The foci of implementation are on classroom culture, mindful planning, dependable routines and classroom design. Though these may sound familiar to teachers, Cooper-Kahn and Foster offer fresh evidence from current studies to support the practices they advocate. For example, the authors discuss the essential use of planners throughout the book. Providing the planner for students is important but explicitly telling them how to use the planner is the true key to developing strong EF. Discussing the difference between a DUE date and a “DO” date prepares students to plan in advance and organize what needs to be done. This technique applies to projects, tests, and papers as well.  Utilizing the planner lowers cognitive load by freeing up working memory capacity and simultaneously reducing anxiety. Therefore more brain energy can be used for higher-level thinking of concepts.

In later chapters, more targeted techniques are discussed for students who need extra support. These activities can be conducted in small groups or one-on-one by the teacher or a specialist. Suggested school-wide changes for administrators are given in the section titled “The EF-Smart School”.  While the authors claim to be “old school” in school organization and practice, they offer modern strategies involving useful websites, software, and Apps for students and teachers alike!  Moreover, Cooper-Kahn and Foster thoughtfully provide planning pages and graphic organizers for teachers and administrators to get started on their own plans to implement EF strategies.  Finally, every scientific article is available in the endnotes for those educators desiring more involved reading.

Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Margaret Foster provide the perfect balance of neuroscience and pragmatic classroom application in Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators to effectively improve students’ executive skills.

category: Book Reviews

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