Teachers as First Responders: Executive Function Knowledge Improves Instruction

Teachers as First Responders: Executive Function Knowledge Improves Instruction

Sheri G. Lederman (Great Neck School District, USA) and Bruce Torff (Hofstra University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0204-3.ch006
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Effective instruction begins at the level of each individual student in a classroom. It is not enough for educators to simply assess prior content knowledge at the beginning of the school year in order to develop an appropriate instructional program. Teachers should have knowledge of executive functions (EF), the cognitive processes associated with active learning and work production. Educators must be prepared with the tools and strategies to assess the foundational EF capacities of working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility that are essential to the learning process. Preservice training and inservice professional development that prioritize instructional strategies to further EF abilities can fill the current gap in pedagogical approaches, potentially improving the academic outcomes of students.
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College and career readiness has become a popular catch-phrase for the purpose of K-12 education in the 21st century. For schools to achieve this goal, teachers must structure learning environments and engage in instructional practices that enable students to learn all that is necessary to successfully tackle the academic demands of higher education (if college bound) or use their knowledge, ingenuity, innovation, creativity, and critical thinking skills in the working world. But what does learning actually mean for students? Is it a matter of recalling and regurgitating sets of domain-specific facts? In this world of what Prensky (2001) called digital natives, many would suggest that memorization and automatic recall are unnecessary as the internet makes fast work of retrieving almost any basic fact associated with K-12 education. The challenge for today’s students is in making connections between vast amounts of available information to understand complex concepts and apply their knowledge in unfamiliar contexts.

The shift in public education towards Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and high-stakes testing has put pressure on teachers and schools to ensure that all students meet local, state, and national standards of performance across the curriculum. Students must be able to accurately and efficiently recall, apply, integrate, and extend content knowledge in ways that demonstrate conceptual understanding, pattern recognition, critical evaluation, and creative interpretation. Academic learning requires the development and maturation of executive function (EF) skills, the set of higher-order cognitive capacities necessary for self-directed goal-driven action in response to complex novel tasks that integrate information from multiple sources (P. Anderson, 2002; Barkley, 2012; Gioia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 2000; Lezak, 1995; Meltzer & Krishnan, 2007). Executive functions are essential for academic success because they enable individuals to plan, execute, sustain or modify a set of actions over time, and inhibit or delay inappropriate responses while concurrently maintaining in working memory a representation of a goal and the information necessary to achieve it (Stuss & Alexander, 2000; Welsh & Pennington, 1988).

This chapter will begin with an explanation of EF and its foundational components. The relationship between EF and intelligence will be addressed in both typical and atypical learners. Research supporting the connection between EF and academic achievement across the content domains will follow, highlighting the importance of EF for school performance. Next will be a discussion of the changing role of teachers as diagnosticians and first responders who can recognize and address executive dysfunction in the context of the classroom. The chapter will end with a focus on professional development training and resources for EF intervention in general education classrooms as well as recommendations for pre-service training.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Scaffolding: Providing a temporary framework to support the thinking and execution of steps in the learning process

Shifting: The ability to switch the focus of attention and/or cognition

Working Memory: A temporally-limited ability to concurrently store, process, and manipulate information

Encode: To represent in memory the features of objects, events, or information

Inhibition: The ability to put the brakes on thoughts or behavior in order to adapt one’s reaction to the conditions of a task or situation.

Preservice: Refers to one who is in training to work in a particular field

Cognitive Control: The ability to manage the processes associated with learning including perceiving, remembering, reasoning, and problem solving

Inservice: Refers to one who is currently working in a particular field

Pedagogy: The instructional practices employed by a teacher that facilitate learning in a classroom

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