Annual Literacy Conference – Executive Functioning


Reading in the Rockies Annual Literacy Conference

By JC Cook

            On October 11th and 12th, I and a few of my Learning Foundation cohorts were honored enough to attend the Reading in the Rockies Annual Literacy Conference hosted by the Rocky Mountain Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. I learned quite a lot at this conference, but as writing all of it down would be horribly inefficient and boring, I will only focus on a handful of items I found exceedingly impactful.

Executive Functioning

One of the superstars of this year’s conference was George McCloskey, Ph.D., who is an expert in the field of executive functioning. Executive functions are those that help a person plan and execute a task. While all people diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD have some amount of impaired executive functioning, ADHD and dyslexia are not a prerequisite for impaired executive functioning. The basis is this: the frontal lobes operate as a lazy boss that tells the rest of the brain what to do. While the boss is indeed lazy, he/she is also imperative to planning. Executive functioning disorder, or EFD, is a condition in which aspects of executive function is lacking or behind in its development, causing behavioral issues that make succeeding academically more difficult. McCloskey made the point that this definition is much too simple and brands executive functioning in too simple of metaphors and, thus, brands EFD too generally to be very effective. McCloskey pinpointed 33 self-regulating executive functions, any of which may be impaired while the rest have developed in a timely manner. His argument is that EFD is a much more complicated thing than it is currently being tagged and that by identifying what specific executive functions need the most work, educators and parents are better able to tailor their approaches to the needs of the individual student.

This more in-depth look at EFD creates a framework with which students with EFD can be viewed as well as how they view themselves. By identifying the individual needs by making note of what “clusters” require the most attention—attention, engagement, optimization, efficiency, memory, inquiry, and solution—educators and parents evade the nebulous diagnosis of EFD and can have a more easily understood strategy for development to work with. These “clusters” can even be narrowed down further if we approach them from the angle of arenas of involvement, i.e. does the unwanted behavior occur just in school, or does it crop up at home as well? A large generalization of McCloskey’s message can be understood as—and hopefully he’d agree with me—the more specific we can diagnose, the better we can help.

Here is some advice from McCloskey’s presentation and breakout sessions on helping students with EFD:

  • Use specific language and small steps when teaching how to complete a task.
  • Ask students reflective questions and teach them how to ask themselves reflective questions in order for them to develop their frontal lobe. Often teachers and parents see a student struggling and want to help them by being their frontal lobe, but this will not help the student’s abilities develop.
  • Students with EFD are not lazy! Instead they quite literally do not know how to proceed.
  • When teaching, try to move about the room. This will help keep the attention of the students.
  • Give instructions in the correct order the student will need to do them.
  • Most students with EFD are not stuck in time; they will get there, just not at the time we demand it from them.
  • Play games! Making learning more fun and interactive helps every student, not just those with EFD.
  • Make rewards attainable. Often students with EFD never reach goals that are set too high and only experience the punishment involved in failing.
  • Let the students know that brains can and do change. They are not a lost cause; they can improve.

For more of McCloskey’s research, click here.


Technological Support

            Elaine Cheesman, Ph.D., gave a wonderful presentation on technological support for students with ADHD, dyslexia, and EFD. Her approach incorporates what’s known as structured Literacy, and she has found many technologies helpful with students. In my own experience, technology and games help students with EFD learn more effectively, and can, in a way, help level the academic playing field. Cheesman has put together a very large list of technological support that she has found useful and I strongly advise looking at some of her choices.

For a list of aps and software, click here.


Experiencing Dyslexia

            The final breakout session of the conference was about building empathy and understanding for those with dyslexia by undergoing tasks that impaired task completion. While the tasks could not and did not try to impart what dyslexia was exactly like, the feeling of frustration and failure were palpable and heart breaking. Trying to draw shapes while only looking in a mirror, memorizing alien symbols and then attempting to “read” stories using them—these were only a few of the activities we went through. By the end I was frustrated, sad, and had a splitting headache. I also had a deeper understanding of my students, a higher value for them and their efforts, and a more profound drive to help because of my empathy.

Click here for more simulations.

The Reading in the Rockies Conference was both an empowering and humbling experience. It was incredible to see the energy and brilliance of the research being done, but even better to me was the energy and love the people there had for education and students. I plan on attending again, and I highly advise parents of children with learning challenges to attend as well.

Plus, it’s in Beaver Creek, so win-win, right?

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