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Nobody Wants to Look Stupid: Resources for Teaching About Executive Functions (Opinion)

Vulnerability causes people to do some interesting things. For preteens, it often manifests into cutthroat judgment and meanness as defense mechanisms. If you look stupid, then I won’t. Couple that with a less than solid understanding of why anything is happening to you or around you, and you can live through some pretty traumatizing experiences with possible ripple effects on your confidence into adulthood.

I would argue that most people walking the planet could use some sort of support in healing the inner schoolchild that still walks among the halls of our memories.

The ironic thing is that everyone has feelings, thoughts, and experiences that are more alike than different. And if the priority was to share, empathize, and understand these vulnerable learning moments over the actual content itself, we might drastically cut down on the damage that negative peer-to-peer exchanges inflict. How many brilliant and creative ideas vanished inside the black hole of someone’s inner life because they didn’t want to look stupid or felt like they didn’t have a safe learning space to take a risk and share without ridicule?

As a popular Tweet–turned–meme recounts, “A guy in class got called on to answer a question and after a short pause he said, ‘hang on, I’m not dumb I’m just panicking.’ I felt that. The girl next to me felt that. Your mom felt that. The world felt that.”

So, if we all feel it, why do we all remain silent? We need to understand executive functioning and the brain to cultivate empathetic, dynamic, supportive learning spaces to explore big ideas and breed our most confident generation.

In his 2017 study paper advocating an increase in training and educating about executive functioning in early education years, psychologist Clancy Blair defines executive functions as the “thinking skills that assist with reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and managing one’s life. The brain areas that underlie these skills are interconnected with and influenced by activity in many different brain areas, some of which are associated with emotion and stress.”

Because of this association with stress, Blair explains, too much stimulation can mess with our executive functions—as can too little stimulation, such as boredom and lethargy.

If we treated these thinking skills as an essential part of the curriculum, each student would have a better understanding of themselves and how they retain, analyze, and struggle with learning new material. When teachers help students pinpoint the roadblock in their executive functioning, students have the opportunity to use specific strategies to progress, thus, decreasing the negative self-talk that accompanies struggles.

Better yet, knowing enough to predict a cognitive roadblock should be a learned skill. By recognizing the reasons why someone needs more time, approaches learning differently, or gets stuck, the environment becomes more complex and less reductive, for example perceiving a binary of stupid versus smart. Putting the process of executive functioning—and the understanding of it—out in the open breeds open communication, understanding, and, ideally, empathy.

As a teacher, my classroom experience included a lot of trial and error in creating this space. I was always looking for easy ways to do this. When I practiced these simple steps with consistency, I was able to build a culture of understanding for what is going on for each classroom member under the surface of their proverbial “iceberg.”

Here is the tool kit I would encourage other educators to start with:

Open class by rating how willing your students’—and your own—executive functions are to learn today. This can be on paper, a Google survey, or simply a number shown with fingers. Ask your students why they chose their rating. Some of the most common factors preventing learning are being stressed, hungry, tired, sad, among other emotions. This simple act of identifying these barriers sets the tone for class and reminds us that sometimes our learning and retention are about more than just intelligence.

Use class time to regularly build vocabulary that relates to executive functioning. Post the terms as you teach them. A word wall gives them priority and value. Model these words in your teaching. For example, “I am having a hard time initiating this task,” or “I can’t visualize the finished product here,” or “I am going to plan my time management by breaking this down into digestible small steps.” Frequently talk to your class about your own process using the vocabulary. Having a name for things makes them less personally vulnerable and solvable. You have to name it to tame it.

Make predicting roadblocks a norm in your classroom. This allows for permission to get stuck as part of a process, so shame doesn’t stop your students’ momentum. Before tackling an assignment, brainstorm as a class what potential roadblocks might come up and have the students suggest solutions with their peers.

Have students rank their confidence in each of the executive functions. Lastly, in an intentional activity any time in the year, multiple times a year, pair up students who identify an executive function as their weakest with someone who calls it a strength. The pair trade advice, tips, or strategies for improving that function. Share your own thoughts with the group as well. Teacher participation promotes vulnerability.

Examining how our attitudes and actions affect others leads us to make conscious and conscientious decisions based on mutual advantage. Imagine a classroom that approaches learning to benefit everyone in the room. Students are connected to each other and essential to their success and ability to learn and solve problems.

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