Guideline 6: Provide options for executive functions

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At the highest level of the human capacity to act skillfully are the so-called “executive functions.” Associated with prefrontal cortex in the brain, these capabilities allow humans to overcome impulsive, short-term reactions to their environment and instead to set long-term goals, plan effective strategies for reaching those goals, monitor their progress, and modify strategies as needed. Of critical importance to educators is the fact that executive functions have very limited capacity and are especially vulnerable to disability. This is true because executive capacity is sharply reduced when: 1) executive functioning capacity must be devoted to managing “lower level” skills and responses which are not automatic or fluent (due to either disability or inexperience) and thus the capacity for “higher level” functions is taken; and 2) executive capacity itself is reduced due to some sort of higher level disability or to lack of fluency with executive strategies. The UDL approach typically involves efforts to expand executive capacity in two ways: 1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed. Previous guidelines have addressed lower level scaffolding, this guideline addresses ways to provide scaffolding for executive functions themselves.

6.1 Options that guide effective goal-setting

When left on their own, most students – especially those who are immature or who have disabilities that affect executive function – set learning and performance goals for themselves that are inappropriate or unreachable. The most common remedy is to have adults set goals and objectives for them. That short-term remedy, however, does little to develop new skills or strategies in any student, and does even less to support students with executive function weaknesses. A UDL approach embeds graduated scaffolds for learning to set personal goals that are both challenging and realistic right in the curriculum.

Examples:

  • Prompts and scaffolds to estimate effort, resources, and difficulty
  • Models or examples of the process and product of goal-setting
  • Guides and checklists for scaffolding goal-setting

6.2 Options that support planning and strategy development

Once a goal is set, effective learners and problem-solvers plan a strategy for reaching that goal. For young children in any domain, older students in a new domain, or any student with one of the disabilities that compromise executive functions (e.g. ADHD, ADD, Autism Spectrum Disorders), the strategic planning step is often omitted and impulsive trial and error trials take its place. To help students become more plan-full and strategic a variety of options – cognitive “speed bumps” that prompt them to “stop and think;” graduated scaffolds that help them actually implement strategies; engagement in decision-making with competent mentors – are needed. 

Examples:

  • Embedded prompts to “stop and think” before acting
  • Checklists and project planning templates for setting up prioritization, sequences and schedules of steps
  • Embedded coaches or mentors that model think-alouds of the process
  • Guides for breaking long-term goals into reachable short-term objectives

6.3 Options that facilitate managing information and resources

One of the limits of executive function is that imposed by the limitations of so-called working memory. This “scratch pad” for maintaining chunks of information in immediate memory where they can be accessed as part of comprehension and problem-solving is very limited for any student and even more severely limited for many students with learning and cognitive disabilities. As a result, many such students seem disorganized, forgetful, unprepared. Wherever short-term memory capacity is not construct-relevant in a lesson, it is important to provide a variety of internal scaffolds and external organizational aids – exactly those kinds that executives use – to keep information organized and “in mind.”

Examples:

  • Graphic organizers and templates for data collection and organizing information
  • Embedded prompts for categorizing and systematizing
  • Checklists and guides for note-taking

6.4 Options that enhance capacity for monitoring progress

Many students seem relatively unresponsive to corrective feedback or knowledge of results. As a result they seem “perseverative,” careless or unmotivated. For these students all of the time, and for most students some of the time, it is important to ensure that options can be customized to provide feedback that is more explicit, timely, informative, and accessible (see representational guidelines above and guidelines for affective feedback.). Especially important is providing “formative” feedback that allows students to monitor their own progress effectively and to use that information to guide their own effort and practice. 

Examples:

  • Guided questions for self-monitoring
  • Representations of progress (e.g. before and after photos, graphs and charts showing progress over time)
  • Templates that guide self-reflection on quality and completeness
  • Differentiated models of self-assessment strategies
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7 Responses to Guideline 6: Provide options for executive functions

  1. […] out this link to get some background. And visit Universal Design for learning to get some ideas for applying executive functioning supports in your inclusion […]

  2. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for abbassando

  3. lisa nee says:

    Hi, thanks so much for this wonderful information. I have a teenager who does not want to hear this info from his parents. Do you know of classes, or seminars he can attend. thanks so much Lisa

  4. […] 3. Provide options for executive functions (examples) […]

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