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Improving Executive Function and Teaching Study Skills: What's the Connection?

We hear the term "executive function" with increasing frequency. The term comes up in conversations about students who are struggling in school--often not due to specific academic weaknesses, but more often to issues of organization, time management, and a strategic approach to getting work done. Often, these are students who can't find their books or papers, forget to do or turn in their homework, and/or have difficulty getting started on, sustaining effort during, or completing tasks.

The term "executive function" describes the brain’s skill at accessing and coordinating all of its functions in order to achieve a goal. Thomas E. Brown (2007) conceives of the brain as a symphony, with executive function as its conductor:

Regardless of their expertise, the musicians need a competent conductor who will select the piece to play, makes sure they start playing at the same time and stay on tempo, fade in the strings and then bring in the brass, and manage them as they interpret the music. Without an effective conductor, the symphony will not produce good music" (p. 23).*

Each of us performs a daily symphony composed of thousands of goal-oriented behaviors conducted by our executive function. Goal-oriented behavior has at its core the application of strategies. Strategies that are specific to managing schoolwork are often called "study skills."

Our success at achieving any task is largely dependent on our use of strategies. We all develop or learn strategies to approach many different tasks. The more routinely we apply a strategy and succeed at the task, the easier it becomes. In order to tie her shoe, for example, a young child requires modeling, explicit instruction, guided practice and praise of her success. In contrast, most adults apply a shoe-tying strategy with little conscious effort.

Good study skills are successful routines (sets of strategies) for approaching school work. They can be grouped into three general categories: materials management, time management, and information/idea management.

What are your challenges and successes in teaching strategies and routines? Please post a comment below!

*Brown, T. E. (2007). A new approach to attention deficit disorder. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 22-27.

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Here is a question for anyone reading this...
In the seminars and courses I've taught on executive function, one consistent question arises. The teachers ask, "How can we get parents on board so things are consistent?" and the parents ask, "How can we get teachers on board so things are consistent?"
Have any of you come up with good communication systems that address this issue? Please post your ideas!

In the elementary program (grades 2-5) at Landmark, each student has a communication log ( a.k.a. spiral notebook). At the beginning of the year all the teachers sent home a note in this log explaining how it would be used. The teachers also explain the purpose to the children so that they understand the importance of the log.Teachers use the log to share information about high points of the day, behavior, attention, homework issues and special announcements. Parents are asked to check the log each night. The teachers collect them, read & respond to notes from parents daily. The tricky part is working with the students so they remember to bring it in and so they do not loose the log.

The dearth of replies speaks volumes, eh?
However, I think online communication can go a long way. I've heard parents say that a teacher emails them, or posts assignments online.
When I taught at The New Community School, students got a handout at the beginning of every week with the projected homework. Parents knew to look for it. COnsistency in the consistency-improvement effort may be the most important element.
Of course, one trouble is that if there are EF issues involved, then consistency is a mighty challenge. I can't tell you how many times I've found traces of a "system" in a desk somewhere, that I had forgotten I'd ever embarked upon. Never did find something that worked; found a job that was a better fit instead ;)

My son is a senior this year and will be going off to college soon. I would like to know if anyone has knowledge of or experience with the Livescribe pen, notepads and other accessories?

A good place to go with technology questions is the www.qiat.org website. They have archives of discussions and they're up on the latest and greatest... and the quirks, too, and the things that are challenges to some of us if not the targeting market. If I remember right, the pens that record while notetaking have gotten good reviews from college students.

I don't have first-hand knowledge of it, but I've found that PC World's reviews are reliable. Check out their review of the product at http://www.pcworld.com/reviews/product/31717/review/pulse_smartpen.html

I had a bit of inspiration today. One of my students is struggling with writing a research paper for one of her pre-nursing courses. The language demands of gathering information from many sources and organizing them is very daunting, given her challenges with writing. This is a very able student... who wrote about what "dacars" recommend to their patients.
I'm thinking that we could use the assorted technology - Dragon or Word Q, Inspiration, Read and Write Gold - to learn to put together a nice little piece of research, properly done.
Getting back to executive function and organizing - Personally, I have taken to using PowerPoint when I have to write a paper - I type so much faster than I write that the notecards that served me well in my high school and college days had me gnashing my teeth, but when I tried to just type in notes and then move 'em around, I wanted them in that digestible size of the notecard... teh powerpoint slide! I could even print 'em out at 9 per page (or 6 if they had lots of text on 'em) and do the shuffling and organizing thing.
Okay, time to use those EF skills and figure out my next step :)

Yes, I started using powerpoint for notecards too quite a while ago. The beauty of them lays also in how easy it is to color code them by topic. Students tell me that there are now lots of programs for digital notecards. I'll look back at my notes to see if I can dig up the names of them.

The language and organizational demands posed by a research paper can completely overwhelm students--especially at the college level when they are expected to be gathering information from scholarly resources which are often written at a very sophisticated level. Make sure she knows the text structure of most journal articles so she doesn't get bogged down in the details (e.g., read the abstract for a summary, the introduction for the background of where the research fits in to the bigger picture, and the conclusions/discussion section for understanding both the implications of the research discussed as well as the direction future research should take). Once students start to unlock the mysteries of academic prose, it becomes much less daunting.

For references, you might let your students know about a good online reference creator http://citationmachine.net/ Although it is sponsored by an organization called The Landmark Project, it is unrelated to Landmark School. It is a terrific way to take the pain out of creating proper citations. Also, if your students use EBSCO or other online databases, there is a way to create a reference list, copy it to a word file, then paste it into the paper they are writing.

I am a teacher at Landmark's High School. By nature of our student population - students with language based learning disabilities - we have the occasion to see many executive functioning weaknesses in our students. Most of our students come to us with years of baggage from having been judged by their former school systems, parents, friends and self as “unmotivated” or “underachieving”. In reality, what many of these students are living with are significant executive functioning impairments. We know from research that over time such weaknesses lead to poor academic performance and a diminished self-image (Guare and Dawson 2004). As a teaching community, understanding this helps us to resist the temptation to label our students “lazy” and inspires us to provide opportunities for success by implementing strategies in our classrooms that remediate executive functioning weaknesses.

In our classrooms we strive to implement basic instructional modifications to accomodate students' executive functioning weaknesses. For example, we keep our class sizes small (a maximum of 8 students), sit students in close proximity to the teacher, use routine cueing systems like checklists, offer assistance to break-up a large assignments into smaller more manageable chunks, and provide immediate and positive feedback to students on their performance. We have learned that these are small but powerful ways to enhance the executive functions of the brain that enable students to organize tasks and time, sustain focus on a given task, regulate effort and speed, manage emotions, utilize working memory, and monitor self-action (Brown 2002).

Beyond this, we also aim to provide opportunities for remediation of our students executive functioning weaknesses. One way this is done is through the language arts tutorial, where tutors serve not only as teachers of reading and writing, but also as one-to-one study skills coaches. Tutors teach and reinforce notetaking and organizational systems that students are being exposed to in their content classes.

We also work to provide an opportunity for remediation of executive functioning deficits in our Study Skills classes. There we explicitly teach and practice note-taking strategies, time management techniques, test taking skills, stress reduction methods, and learning style awareness. When we do this, we are able to directly remediate the planning, organization, focusing and self-regulatory weaknesses associated with executive dysfunction (Petersen, Lavelle and Guarino 2006).

Finally, Landmark has made a practice of trying to integrate study skills instruction throughout the whole of the content curriculum, teaching skills not only in isolation but also in the context of content classes like history and science. We know from research that it is ineffective to teach study skills independent from the learners who use them and the context in which they are applied (Petersen, Lavelle and Guarino 2006). While balancing the obvious need to move through required content, we strive to remember that first and foremost we must teach the study skills necessary to access this content. There will always be more content to teach, but without these skills our students will forever struggle to become independent learners.


Brown, Thomas E. (2002, November). DSM-IV: ADHD and Executive Function Impairments. Advanced Studies in Medicine, 2(25), 910-914.

Guare, R., & Dawson, P. (2004, August). Executive skills in children and teens – Parents, teachers and clinicians can help. Brown University Child & Adolescent Behavior Letter, 20(8), 1-7.

Petersen, R., Lavelle, E., Guarino, A. (2006, January 1). The Relationship between College Students’ Executive Functioning and Study Strategies. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 36(2), 59.

Your comments are really helpful, and Landmark students are lucky to have this type of support. In your opinion, what are the one or two most important things I can do to support students with executive function problems in my classes? I teach English and I have 25 students in each of my classes. I share an assistant, and I have an inclusion teacher who comes in twice per week.

In thinking about the one or two most important things we can do to support students with executive functioning weaknesses in our classrooms – I immediately thought of the notion of ‘student as leader’.

Put simply, this is the act of putting our students in the driver’s seat. When we help students to view themselves as proactive agents in their learning, we are directly strengthening students’ self-regulation, a key component of executive functioning. This is no doubt a kind of paradigm shift from the traditional education model. Rather than the viewing the student as passive follower, we embrace the student as leader. Rather than the student following an organized plan (one that is likely developed and maintained by the teacher) – the student is the organizer and manager of the plan.

Teaching time management skills is one practical way to actualize this kind of shift to ‘student as leader’. As students progress in their education, more and more of their assignments are longer-term in nature. Without adequate executive functioning skills, longer-term projects will likely thwart a student’s success.

When teachers give students longer-term assignments, we can help them develop executive functioning skills if we teach them the skills needed to independently organize and manage the project. For example, we can model for them how to break a large assignment up into smaller, more manageable chunks. Among other things, we can teach them to consider their study habits, other personal commitments, and available time when developing a plan to complete the task. We can give them opportunities to practice and offer individualized support as they self-monitor their time and work completion to ensure they are progressing toward the goal.

When teachers commit to viewing the ‘student as leader’, students can begin to take responsibility to develop and maintain their own plan of action. This is the self-directedness and self-regulation often missing in our students with executive functioning weaknesses.

Could you tell me how you do the "integrated study skills" with assistive technology? I'm thinking specifically of getting students using things like voice recognition and text-to-speech and mind mapping software. I was thinking of having students read text to train the voice recognition after that minimal initial training; I wonder about teaching them the "correction" procedure and at what apoint... I was thinking of using our Inspiration to type in notes (with or without pictures) and "hide subtopics" to study...
any Been-There-Done-That tips you could throw my way? (Especially "been there and don't want to do that again!" tips)

I think the assistive technology (AT for now) that is available today is simply amazing, and can make stunning differences in students' academic performance. The big question is always when to incorporate it--when to we shift from independent skill development to AT? It is always a judgement call based on the individual. Landmark School uses little AT because it is a remedial program. This means the focus is on remediating skill deficits as opposed to providing AT to access a general curriculum. So, for example, students have oral reading classes and tutorials as opposed to using AT such as Kurzweil, and texts are modified to fit reading levels.

That said, AT has incredible benefits too. When the decision is made to use it, the most important thing is to ensure that the student has complete independent mastery of it (when they don't they lose all the benefit--I've seen so many students get overwhelmed and frustrated). This is also true of regular educational software programs such as Inspiration (I don't think of Inspiration as AT because it has such broad applications).

From a "been there done that" perspective (I've taught at places other than Landmark and used some AT and lots of other software), my recommendation would be to introduce one thing at a time. I've used Inspiration a lot--it is a powerful tool and comes in a kid version too (Kidspiration for K-5). It is great for all kinds of mapping, visual learners, etc., but in my experience, students need coaching in how to use it effectively.

As far as AT, I'd recommend reading up on it and maybe attending a professional development program about using it. Some good places to start:
CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) http://www.cast.org/
Read about Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Check out the Landmark College pages "Assistive Technology for the Classroom" http://www.landmark.edu/institute/assistive_technology/index.html

Hope this provides a start!

I'm pretty familiar with the technology; I've done a fair amount of training and we've got it right here in the lab. There's a veritable chasm, though, between me knowing how to use it and finding a way to get students using it effectively. Students need coaching - and more, here, because it's a community college so we don't have a captive audience, though there are ways to create the same effect (such as doing a credit hour module). It's how to effect that coaching and get them to that independent mastery that I'm looking for.

Yes, I agree that it's really hard. I remember when I was in college and still using a typewriter, it took a writing professor who required our use of the computer to get me to learn how. If there's any way to get the faculty on board with tech. it would probably help a great deal. And yes, a credit bearing course or workshop might do the trick. Things work a bit differently at the college level, but as far as coaching goes, perhaps having required mini-assignments, sequentially structured toward program mastery would help. Somehow, the students need compelling evidence that their investment of time will pay off in the end. This is hard for time-crunched students who often leave things until the last minute.

I'm not sure exactly what your role is, so this suggestion may be wildly off. I know of a few teachers who have run a sort of "after hours" or lunchtime tech workshop and they provide food and/or prizes for participants who can demonstrate that they have mastered a given module. This has worked with both students and faculty members who need tech. training. Wish I had easier answers!

I'm an "academic development specialist " at Parkland Community College. We have a large "Center for Academic Success" that has assorted tutoring and support for students We have a 16-computer lab especially for students in "developmental" courses, which means pre-101 level. We have computers and software obtained with a Title III grant that, alas, is no longer - but hte school's administration is very supportive of efforts to meet the needs of non-traditional students.

We see students with diagnosed and undiagnosed LDs, and many students who were "passed through" for whatever reason in regular or special ed, who simply don't have any academic background to speak of, with all range of abilities. We get students who speak urban and rural dialects, with limited vocabularies... I suspect many would benefit from learning to connect what they're saying to the printed words, and to learn to "hear" or visualize what they are reading instead of the painful thing that passes for reading that happens when they gaze upon the printed page; then, perhaps, they could both improve their expressive language and spell the longer words already in their oral language.

THe workshop idea could work, especially if faculty gave incentives for it, and we've got a good working relationship with faculty. THat's something I'll explore...

What an important and challenging role! I do think that awakening faculty to the possibilities of technology is important. Perhaps workshops for professors too?! One other thought is that "show and tell" is often effective. If you do have students and/or professors who use AT effectively, their testamonials and demos of how they use it can be very motivating for both students and faculty who are less familiar with it. I wish you the best!

I do not have a ton of experience in assistive technology - so unfortunately I will not be much help in answering your question here. What I will say, though, is that I believe the use of any kind of technology which can carry over from one classroom to another is an excellent way to build consistency and integration in learning. The more consistency and integration we can offer them, the more developed their executive functioning can become.

I have experienced a good success with some forms of technology (though not necessarily assistive) used across the curriculum. You mentioned one - Inspiration. This is an excellent program - intuitive enough for students (and teachers!) to quickly pick-up on and practical enough for students to use it for a variety of purposes and activities. The more classes in which a student is exposed to a program like Inspiration, the likely it is that they will see it as a learning tool they can independently select and ultilize. If integrated, they may be able to choose to use Inspiration to plan for an essay in English class or as a notetaking system for their history class.

I have also used a strategy with my students to learn and retain Math terminology and multi-step processes. I bought mini file folders (about 4" X 6" in size), cut about 10-15 sheets of paper to fit inside ( about 5" X 7"), then stapled the paper down the center of the folder. That gives them a booklet with 20-30 pages, front and back. When a new term and/or process is presented, it is written on a new page, defined, illustrated, and an example added. This gives the student a quick and easy resource for working on daily assignments in Math. I sometimes let them use those resources on tests; since the students made them it impresses on them how usefule notes can be.

My high school school aged child has Aspergers Syndrome and has always struggled in higher level math courses because of not showing all the steps in the process toward finding the answer. He is not "lazy" in any of his other subjects but just has difficulty showing all the steps involved in math courses like algebra & geometry. The teachers are insistent about showing the work, but do not offer any strategies to help facilitate this. I understand their reasoning for wanting students to show all the work, but don't know what strategies I can use to help him accomplish this.

Metacognitive routines are also good to develop. I try to teach students to recognize the path to success, which may include an initial sense of being overwhelmed, but that that doesn't mean you have to stay there. Or, it may include a stage of being sure you're going to have the best project in the world because you have all kinds of ideas... but that if you don't figure out the next stage it's going to stay a dream.

For vocab., I try to get students applying the meaning. "Draw someone with unruly hair" or "what are two things a contentious person would say?" with the definition in front of you makes you process the meaning, not just the definition.

Establishing predictable routines helps students with weaknesses in executive function. For the teacher, some of these include: writing homework on the board in the same spot before class each day, presenting homework in the same format each night, establishing a set day for binder cleanouts, etc. What effective routines have you established in your classrooms?

As a Department Head at Landmark High School, I have had the occasion to see many effective routines at work in the classroom. The best of these routines are predictable and consistent, providing the structure that many students with executive functioning weaknesses are lacking. One great routine is writing the day's agenda on the board and taking adequate time at the start of class to go over it. This provides as roadmap for the day, helping students with little foresight begin to anticipate what will be coming next. Another effective routine is setting aside classtime each week for students to organize and clean-out their notebooks - putting papers in the right order, getting copies of missing notes, discarding unncessary work and moving completed work to an archive. The learning process is quickly derailed when students cannot store or retrieve the work they have done. A final routine is spending time at the end of each class ensuring that students understand the homework assignment and have it accurately recorded in their assignment notebooks. However long this takes, it is always time well spent. When students know what is expected of them and have the needed assistance in maintaining a reminder system for themselves, they are much more likely to complete their work.

My question relates more to time management and organization. Once you have made the vocabulary cards that you've suggested, do you have any tips for helping students manage their time effectively to learn the material -- especially if they should be preparing for an upcoming quiz or test on the information?

The neat thing about flashcards is that it can be done in little chunks. THey can be in three groups - ones you know, ones you know but have to think about (or almost know), and ones you really have to work on. In a 4 minute session you can go over the ones you know and add one more to that stack.
One of the executive function skills is breaking things into chunks... and doing a bit at a time.
One of the biggest problems I've had as a tutor is when there are simply too many terms. Then it's that undelightful task of choosing whether to get a passing grade or to try to learn something. If the task really is verbal bulimia (binge ingestion and then spewing back of definitions), then the strategies are different than the strategies in, say, the clarifying routine at http://www.ldonline.org/article/5759 .

For a warm-up in class, I do quick vocabulary review activities. I will have the students quiz each other by reading the definition and asking for the word. I will have the students illustrate the words. We will do a ball toss, where I toss the ball saying a word or definition and the student have to respond with either the definition or word. Sometimes the children will play tic-tac-toe. The tic-tac-toe board has the vocabulary definitions written in each box. The students must read the definition and write the correct word to go with it. If they get it correct, they get to mark their X or 0. It can also be played with the terms written and have the student say the definition. It is helpful to have one set of cards available to refer to. The students review their vocabulary cards each night in addition to a written assignment. For some of my students, I send a slip for an adult to sign saying they practiced the cards with them.

Once my students have created vocabulary cards I have them use them in a variety of ways. I always model the strategy and provided time for the children to practice the strategy in class before asking them to take them home. 1st I have the students spread the cards on their desk with the word/picture side facing up. I then read or say the definition and have them hold up the card that matches the definition. This is great because everyone can answer at the same time and no one has to talk:) . Once they are more familiar with the words, I will do the same activity with the definitions facing up. Another activity I do is having the students put the words in ABC order. They can do this on a worksheet or with the actual cards. If I am doing it with the whole class each student holds a different card and they need to arrange themselves in order in the front of the room. After that they can either define the word or use it in a sentence that shows they know the meaning. As a review activity, I will have one person draw the visual and the others guess the word. Once the word is guessed someone else is asked to define the word. The students organize all their vocabulary cards from the different units in a coupon holder (accordion style). Each section is for a different set of vocabulary.

Your comment is linked to the strategy on vocabulary cards, and your question is a good one. Depending upon the age of the student, many approaches might work. Telling students to "review your cards for 10 minutes per night" is probably not the most effective approach. Having them do something active to review would be more effective. So, generating a list of activities to do with the cards would be one approach. For example, use the words to do some of the following: make a video (along the lines of "Schoolhouse Rock," or a video of yourself teaching the vocabulary to others; write a story or play; create a commercial; compose a song or a poem; make a matching game or a game such as "Password" to play with the vocabulary, etc. A list of activities (with models and instructions included) can inspire some great creativity and be used for each week's or unit's vocabulary. Students' games etc. can be saved and used/traded for exam or final project reviews.

Anyone else have suggestions?

In following these interesting strands on vocabulary instruction, I see a link to the need for students to possess adequate test preparation skills. Just as "telling students to 'review your cards for 10 minutes per night' is probably not the most effective approach", I have seen students greatly struggle with assignments like "study for 30 minutes for tomorrow's test". Having no clue where to begin such a task, students' often respond by either doing nothing or stressing out to the point of being ineffective. Just as "giving students something active to do" is helpful with vocabulary words, it is imperative that we teach students active approaches to studying for tests and exams. Here are a few active test preparation strategies that I have found to be effective: gathering and organizing relevant materials, creating a study guide, anticipating test questions and answers, summarizing notes, creating notecards, participating in a study group, and creating and playing review games. After directly introducing each of these strategies, it is imperative that we explicitly label these activities as 'studying' and help students figure out when and how they can self-select this strategy the next time they are faced with a bewildering assignment like "study for 30 minutes". When we do this, we help students gain the competence and confidence they need to independently select and execute a given study strategy in the future.

I think that students need explicit instructions, modeling and practice (as did the little girl learning to tie her shoe) in order to obtain good study skills and executive function skills. More of these startegies should be taught in the upper elementary and early middle school years not in high school. So many children are failing because they do not have these solid skills behind them. So my advice is explain, model and practice, even if the task seems trivial, as writing homework in an assignmnet notebook.