Executive Functions Are Embedded in the Curriculum
at Stephen Gaynor School
Geena Kuriakose, Ph.D.
Brooklyn Learning Center
Amy Margolis, Ph.D.
Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Brooklyn Learning Center
Understanding a child’s cognitive processing, and specifically executive functioning, is critical to assessing and treating dyslexia, learning, and attention disorders. Early in 2020, before schools were closed for social distancing, we developed a project with Head of School Dr. Scott Gaynor and Assistant Head of School Jill Thompson who, recognizing the importance of such training for their students, enlisted us to help them identify where executive functioning training was occurring in school and how they could enhance their program.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), executive functions encompass “the capacity to plan, organize, and monitor the execution of behaviors that are strategically directed in a goal-oriented manner.” One researcher, Adele Diamond, describes executive functioning in a daily-activity-friendly manner such as: taking the time to think before acting, mentally playing with ideas, thinking ‘outside the box’, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances.1
Many of these executive functions can be detected in children as young as age two, as long as the task is appropriate for the child’s age. Developmental studies show that as children get older, these abilities develop in parallel with the development of circuits in the brain that support such skills.2
How Are Executive Functions Trained at Gaynor?
We started by identifying a list of executive functions that students need to use throughout a typical school day, and we set out to observe how teachers supported students in these processes. We spent eight full days in January 2020 visiting classrooms from the Early Childhood program to the Blue Cluster, and observing how teachers engaged students and taught content as well as executive functions as part of a student’s everyday experience.
Below are illustrative examples of the executive function-efficient curriculum at Gaynor:
Inhibitory Control – “Put the brakes on”: Inhibitory control is the ability to inhibit automatic responses in favor of novel responses. For example, it is being able to say “go” when you see a red light. During a reading lesson in an early childhood classroom, a teacher provided a cue (i.e., saying “put the brakes on”) to help her student take the time to think before responding to a question about what sound a letter made, since these sounds change depending on the surrounding letters. For example, the “a” sound changes when reading “rat” versus “rate.” This helped the student practice inhibitory control – within the context of reading. Practicing the skill in context is critical for the student to be able to generalize the skill e.g. to put the brakes on while reading. The student is not just learning to stop and think, but is learning to stop and think while reading.
Working Memory – “keep in mind”: Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind and simultaneously act on the information. For example, holding onto numbers while performing mental arithmetic. During a reading lesson a teacher spoke words aloud and stated their place in an order (mother last, sister first, father second) and then students had to select cards with these words written on them and organize the cards into the order given in the directions. This task thus provided practice with identifying words and also with working memory, which is taxed when holding the list in mind, identifying the written word, and recalling its placement in the list. Working memory is critical for many tasks, from choosing between competing phonetic rules (‘tion’ versus ‘ting’) to making inferences when reading (hold two pieces of information in mind and deduce a third).
Set shifting – “thinking outside the box”: Set shifting is the ability to shift between two sets of rules or between two perspectives, which allows for cognitive flexibility. For example, reciting the alphabet and counting to 20 in alternating order (A-1-B-2-?….try it yourself). In this activity one has to switch between two overlearned sequences in a novel way. Another element of set shifting relates to cognitive flexibility – can you change the way you solve a problem, possibly from a familiar approach to a more novel approach, or by changing a familiar approach to fit a new problem? During a science class, students built circuits and when built correctly the circuit illuminated a light bulb. Students then had to generate multiple other circuits using the same materials to light up the bulb. Essentially students learned one sequence and then had to generate new sequences. We love this activity because it provides practice in the science content and in the executive function. Moreover, there is an inherent built-in reward: when students shifted set and generated new ways to configure the circuit, the lightbulb lit up (figuratively and literally). We also saw teachers support the development of set shifting skills in reading or English class, for example when students learned to think about multiple ways to spell a single word with different meanings (there or their) or when students generated multiple meanings of words spelled the same way (tree bark or a dog’s bark).
Initiation – “Getting started”: Initiation is the ability to start a task. Second to learning sound/symbol correspondence, getting started with writing tasks is possibly the biggest challenge that students with attention and learning problems face in their education. At Gaynor, we saw scaffolded support for this at every age level. For example, students watched a Pixar short with no dialogue and then wrote a paragraph narrating it. This structure provided a way to help students start the task, and it provided an implicit organization of a beginning, middle, and end, without use of language. Another way teachers supported development of this skill was by providing topic and concluding sentences and asking students to write sentences that fit between them. This type of scaffolded exercise also helps students to initiate writing by reducing the working memory demands involved in holding all the ideas in mind while organizing language.
Organization – “sorting things out”: Organization requires putting details into general categories. We saw teachers support students in this skill throughout the day at Gaynor. One of our favorite examples was in reading comprehension. Here, teachers helped students develop organizational skills by having them identify comprehension details (a big idea versus a detail) and then sort the details into groups that supported specific “big ideas” that they had identified in the text.
Inferencing – “Finding the hidden clue”: Inferencing is the ability to deduce information from a set of given facts. For example, answering questions about an author’s tone or the main idea of a paragraph. During reading comprehension instruction, teachers supported students in learning to make inferences by having them identify details that were “in the text” and “outside the text.” They also helped students learn to interpret proverbs or metaphors: “Didi sucks on her teeth” was described as “like rolling your eyes with your mouth.” Inferencing implicitly requires working memory in that a person has to hold two ideas in mind and deduce a third – by drawing pictures and making notes, teachers helped students reduce the working memory load as they inferred meaning from what they read. Teachers also explained to students that there could be a literal or concrete interpretation and an abstract one. For example, they deduced with the class that Didi ‘s actions also showed her annoyance.
Planning – “Thinking ahead”: Planning is the ability to consider a goal and identify needed steps or actions to reach the goal. During a math class teachers supported this by developing a game that required considering alternative outcomes: what if I pick a “kaboom” card (triggering a game changing event) or what if the next person does? Thinking through alternative outcomes allows students to make a plan that will give them the most points. In younger grades we saw teachers model how to plan: what do I have to do to get ready to go home? It is easy to see how this executive function is involved in or similar to many others including metacognition.
Metacognition – “Mindfulness”: Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking or to remember to remember something. For example, monitoring your progress toward a goal as opposed to setting the goal. Teachers supported this skill across age levels. In younger grades they did this by explaining why a student was getting a token: “you took a body break safely, you asked for help, and you were working hard.” Making explicit connections between reward and behavior helps students become metacognitive about their behavior. In older grades, teachers asked students to think about the strategy they would use to approach a writing task before getting started. For example, what does the writing process entail, where are you in the process, what is next? Here, we see how metacognition and planning are again interrelated.
We observed that executive function training is embedded throughout the Gaynor curriculum. Students are constantly being reinforced in these skills. This skills training is seamlessly integrated into the classes across subject matter from reading class to physical education class, from the Early Childhood program to the Blue Cluster. We call this an executive function-efficient curriculum. Our future plans with Dr. Gaynor and Ms. Thompson include writing more about how to do this for teachers in other schools and how parents can continue to support the development of these skills at home.
1.Diamond, Adele. “Executive Functions.” Annual Review of Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4084861/.
2.Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A developmental perspective on executive function. Child development, 81(6), 1641–1660. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01499.x