Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Musings on Executive Functions

Executive Functions
The term executive function describes a set of cognitive abilities that control and regulate other abilities and behaviors. Executive functions are necessary for goal-directed behavior. They include the ability to initiate and stop actions, to monitor and change behavior as needed, and to plan future behavior when faced with novel tasks and situations. Executive functions allow us to anticipate outcomes and adapt to changing situations. The ability to form concepts and think abstractly are often considered components of executive function.
- from Encyclopedia of Mind Disorders

Our theme of study this year for our staff and educational presentations has been executive functions. Today in the Teacher's Lounge, a colleague and I were reliving the morning while laughing and crying - without tears- as we discussed what was basically the executive functioning (and/or dysfunctioning) of our current students. We ended the discussion with the light-hearted plan of creating a documentary titled something like The 100 Reasons You Should Care About Executive Functioning.

This evening, I was reading Winnie the Pooh's Valentine with my daughter and, after I stopped enjoying the vocabulary like "enthralled" and "plummeted" and after Rabbit needed a wheelbarrow to "consult" his thick dictionary, I realized that Pooh and his gang are often examples of executive functions - and why they are important.....

In this adventure for example, Pooh was tacking up felt hearts in "all the most strategic places" and had remembered that Owl had explained that strategic places meant
"the places where things were sure to be in the way and, therefore, attract the most attention. At least, that's how Pooh remembered Owl explaining it, which, as far as he was concerned, made it as true as if Owl had actually said it just that way . . ."

Memory and attention . . . . . hmmmm.... then, as Pooh was contemplating his handiwork [monitoring his own actions!], Roo came in to ask Pooh a question. In standard Pooh-fashion, there was some miscommunication for a page or two as they worked through that - problem solving at its best!

It turned out that Roo's dilemma was that he wanted to give a valentine to his mom and didn't know how. Pooh however, being a bear of little brain but lots of executive functions, knew that they would be able to figure it out. Pooh was faced with a novel situation and adapted!

His solution, of course, was to gather all of the other great brains of the Hundred Acre Wood for a brainstorming session. During this session, Piglet first identified the most important thing about a valentine - defining the concept.

A valentine must say 'I love you'! Definitely important. Then Rabbit, being the highly functioning Brain that he is, continued defining their concept with the important point that, since 'I love you' are "the most important words one person can say to another, . . . . a valentine should say them in as many different ways as possible". Looking ahead - great planning Rabbit!

After much gathering of tools and teamwork, Roo had his valentine: a giant boulder that Gopher had chiseled into a heart shape, Tigger had painted (orange with black stripes of course) and that Roo wrote I LOVE YOU on in his best handwriting. Then came Rabbit's thick dictionary brought down the hill in the wheelbarrow. Great planning on Rabbit's part, the dictionary I mean. Anyway, Rabbit's dictionary allowed him to include all of the important phrases that mean I love you, such as "Kiss me good night" and "Do your homework" and "Eat your vegetables" - perhaps the self-talk feature such as "does that make sense?" was not working effectively there.....

All of the team is quite impressed with their impressive creation, until little Roo asks what I call the EFT (Executive Functions Trainer)question: "How am I going to get this to my mother?".

This is when I started laughing and laughing, because it reminded me so much of the students who wanted to make a diorama of an island by building the whole volcano first and the city inside it later (oops, couldn't fit our hands in anymore let alone would we be able to see the city....) or the child who occasionally puts on his shoes and then realizes that he only has one sock on...... talk about planning and anticipating outcomes!

Now, just in case you are worried about poor Roo's valentine, never fear! Eeyore points out that they had one way of doing a valentine. Pooh is thrilled with Eeyore's observation (so full of encouragement is our Pooh, which takes everyone else by surprise because it takes quite a bit of processing to truly find those effective alternatives, but Pooh points out that if there was one way of doing a valentine, then there must be a "two way" because "one does not, after all, mean only. It means the something before the next thing. . . ". Pooh is applying his skills to adapt to the changing situation!

Having processed all of this information and observing everyone else's behaviors and decisions, Roo realizes what the "next thing" is and is able to apply that knowledge independently in his own way. Roo gives his mom a beautiful bunch of colorful wildflowers.

He was also able to verbalize his processing (another high level skill). He explains that his flowers are good valentine because they say "I love you", and, since they are all different kinds, they say 'I love you' "in lots of different ways". And, since the flowers were small and he is small, they were the "most impressive" valentine he could carry all by himself. What a thinker that Roo is!

During our discussion in the Teacher's Lounge, I know that I made the statement that I have to admit that I am glad that our students do need some training in executive functions, etc.... because that's one form of job security for us. More importantly, it ensures that my days are never boring and that I often receive the reward of seeing growth during my time with them (various degrees of growth and various lengths of time, but still, evident growth most of the time). That reward is a huge part of why I do what I do; but, the next time I feel that I am shaking my head and thinking "why, why, why?" or "how does that work up in that head exactly", I can now remember (after a few deep breaths I'm sure) that I can rest assured. If the crew in the Hundred Acre can always pull through, we can too!


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