Learning Skills and Executive Functions

Getting good grades and graduating from high school is often not about how “smart” someone is or even how much time and effort they put into school. For many students, executive functions and learning skills go hand-in-hand. Difficulties with executive functioning skills such as organization, planning, and time management  may be the major reason that they struggle in school and often drop out. The Edge Foundation recently hit on this issue in a blog entitled “Bright Young People Drop Out of School”.

The fact is that most of the kids who are dropping out of high school, are alienated from the traditional learning process.  They may learn differently than others, struggle with issues such as slow processing speed, working memory, and sustained focus and other skills related to executive functions.  Many of these students are diagnosed with ADHD or learning disabilities and experience difficulties with the traditional expectations around study skills, writing assignments, and sitting in the traditional classroom. At the same time, many of these students are capable learners, who in the right environment, with the right tools and technologies, or with teaching and coaching that fits their learning styles, can become very successful.

For many of these kids, a differentiated instructional model that tailors programs to an individual student and also uses technology as a primary teaching tool, can lead them to success.  LearningWorks for Kids has been part of a committee at the South Kingstown High School in Rhode Island, working  to develop an alternative learning program that focuses on connecting executive functions and school success and on using technology as a tool to help alienated students  graduate from high school.  The proposed South Kingstown alternative learners program shares some of the goals that are articulated by the Edge Foundation which includes improving executive functions, critical thinking, and study skills and using technology in project-based learning to increase student engagement and learning.

The key ingredient in getting struggling students to complete high school is to help them identify themselves as capable learners. This does not necessarily mean that they have to be whizzes at reading or math, but that they can identify areas that spark their desire to know more and more.  Often this happens through technologies that allow them to learn at their own pace and to display what they have learned through alternative modalities. Coaching struggling students in developing the executive functions necessary for school success and combining these skills with an interest in the use of technology is often the best mix for keeping these students in school and helping them to find areas where they identify themselves as competent and active learners.

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