Editor’s Note: This is a summary of Matthew Fisher’s “Ten Pearls of Executive Function” presentation at the PBIDA 2022 Fall Conference.
by Olabimpe Abayomi-Ige, PhD
In my over 20 years of teaching in the public school system, it is increasingly common to have students who struggle with executive functioning skills. More and more teenagers struggle with some basic competencies that many of their peers acquire so easily. Due to this challenge, many bright students fall behind because they lack the vital skills that they need to be successful. Executive functions are made up of cognitive abilities that help students manage their impulses, regulate difficult emotions, and avoid making decisions that could be detrimental to their life outcomes. Students who have executive function deficits may have difficulties with paying attention; initiating, organizing, and finishing tasks; meeting deadlines; or staying focused.
Matthew Fisher, a father of three boys and a teacher at the Gow School in New York, shared his personal experiences with the difficulties that he encountered as a student with undiagnosed ADHD, and how he was able to overcome the challenges that he faced as a learner. He used the Merriam Webster definition of executive function to give a clear foundation to his discussion: “The group of complex processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory, impulse inhibition, and reasoning) that control the skills (such as organizing tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems) required for goal directed behavior.”
Mr. Fisher carefully explained what he considered the ten pearls of executive functions that teachers, parents, and students could adopt in the classroom and at home for better student outcomes. According to Fisher, his 10 Pearls of Executive Function consist of the following:
- Color coding to organize information (e.g., the use of visual labels in math– 2x+3y+2x+10y)
- Binder system using customized tabs (e.g., notes, homework, tests, and quizzes)
- Daily planners checked before each class
- Flash cards for dates, vocabulary, and formulas
- Checklists and schedules to know what to expect every day
- Simplified directions, chunking, and following a planned schedule
- Using the same clean and organized workspace
- Time management tools (visual timers, start and end times, alarms, and calendars)
- Rewards v. consequences
- Being consistent is key to academic success.
We cannot overlook the challenges that students face in learning environments if they lack executive functioning skills. Students who have no problems with executive functions tend to do very well in school but not because they are better endowed cognitively than their peers who struggle with executive functioning skills. It is crucial that teachers and parents pay particular attention to the academic struggles of students with executive function deficits and find help for them before they lose interest in school completely. We cannot underestimate the impact that executive function deficits can have on children and how those deficits could prevent them from achieving maximally as adults. In order for students to achieve in school, they need to learn how to manage time, set goals, make decisions, manage their impulses, initiate, and complete tasks on time.
Executive function is what makes it possible for children and adults to complete tasks successfully. One part of executive function is storing and retrieving information for later use. It also allows students to think about a particular problem and be able to figure out different approaches to solving the problem effortlessly. Additionally, it facilitates students’ abilities to self-regulate and manage their impulses especially in difficult times. Teachers can help students by teaching them how to apply Mathew Fisher’s 10 Pearls of Executive Functions to their daily lives so that their students can meet with success in school and outside of school.
Olabimpe Abayomi-Ige is a Special Education Teacher and Special Education Compliance Monitor in one of Philadelphia’s public schools. She has worked extensively with special education students, related service providers, teachers, and parents for over 20 years.