Classroom, Executive Function, Just for Teachers, Social Cognition, Social Regulation

Mini Minute Executive Functioning (EF) Tuck-Ins

This one goes out to all the teachers who are looking for ways to support Executive Functioning without giving up your carefully planned lesson times. I work with a lot of K-8 teachers who are always on the lookout for quick and easy ways to target foundational EF skills within their existing classroom routines. The thing is, EF isn’t something you do separate from your regular curriculum. The more you know about EF, the better you get at realizing that so much of what teachers are already doing is supporting and improving students’ skills. It’s like a hidden super power! The goal of this post is to help teachers become more intentional about using their otherwise lost minutes of transition time to keep that EF momentum going!

Let’s say you have two minutes between the end of your math lesson and the lunch bell. What do you do?

(a) Tell students to take out a book and read

(b) Play the “quiet game”

(c) Use an EF tuck-in exercise

(d) Let absolute chaos reign

Using our own inferential skills, let’s examine the likely outcomes of each scenario:

(a) Your announcement = 20 seconds, getting out books = 40 seconds, opening to the right page = 15 seconds, reading one paragraph = 25 seconds …then…time to clean up (followed by copious amounts of “grumble grumble grumble”). Effective? I think not!

(b) Students are annoyed with having to be quiet, you’re annoyed they can’t be quiet…who wins at the quiet game? No one!

(c) Students have fun and improve their EF skills!

(d) Total destruction of the classroom (and your sanity).

In case you’re still scratching your head, I’ll give you a hint: the answer is C. There are countless EF teachable moments (and I do mean moments) during a typical school day: lessons end a little early, students need something to keep them busy in line, you name it! Here are some ideas to turn those lost minutes into EF learning treasure troves, while simultaneously supporting general education skills.

 

EF Tuck-Ins for Cognitive Flexibility

  • Word Association: Begin by saying a random word. Snake through all students in the class, having each student say the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word from the student just before them. This fun game strengthens association pathways in the brain and supports cognitive flexibility during conversations (i.e., the ability to connect to others’ ideas).
  • Two-Word Association: Create a jar of random words. During the tuck-in, select two words from the jar and ask a student to come up with some way those words can be related. This task encourages strong concept association and mental flexibility.
  • Ask students to generate antonyms, synonyms, or a shade of meaning (i.e., a word that means slightly more or less intense than the provided word) for a target word. For example, if the word is happy, the antonym could be sad, the synonym could be glad, and the shade of meaning could be content (less intense) or excited (more intense).
  • Ask students to respond to yes/no questions with an answer that doesn’t involve yes or no (e.g., “Do you like carrots?” response: “Only when they are dipped in ranch”). This task requires engagement of “slow thinking” over automatic “fast thinking.”

EF Tuck-Ins for Working Memory (all tasks done verbally)

  • Ask students to repeat back increasingly longer sequences of numbers in the opposite order of how you give them (e.g., if you say “3-5-7-2,” students say “2-7-5-3”).
  • Give students a target word and ask whether various letters are in the word. This requires students to hold the word in their mind while scanning it for letters.
  • Ask students to verbally spell a target word forwards, then backwards. Switch between common, overlearned words and grade-level vocabulary or spelling words.

EF Tuck-Ins for Inferential Thinking

  • Provide three attributes of a secret object and ask students to make a smart guess about the object you’re describing (e.g., it’s white, it comes from a cow, you drink it). The more nuanced the clues, the more challenging the task.
  • Provide students with an obscure word that has a commonly known root (or a word in a different language). Ask them to make a smart guess about the meaning of the word based on a recognizable root.

EF Tuck-Ins for Problem Solving

  • Provide age-appropriate What Would You Do scenarios to students (e.g., “What would you do if your friend got an ugly hair cut and asked what you thought?” or “What would you do if you were invited to a party and didn’t want to attend?”), and ask them to generate the most expected response they can think of.
  • Ask students to judge the grammaticality of a sentence. If it’s incorrect, ask them to correct it.
  • Present If…Then verbal problems for students to solve (e.g., If Jenny is shorter than Billy, Billy is shorter than Mark, William is taller than Tony, and Mark is the same height as Tony, who is the tallest?”).

EF Tuck-Ins for Categorization

  • Provide four+ words or numbers to all students. Ask the students to determine how they can be sorted into two+ categories based on attributes, functions, locations, materials, appearance, etc. You can use random words/numbers or ones that relate to a current lesson.
  • Provide four words that all connect through a shared attribute except for one. Ask students to identify which one word does not belong and why. The more nuanced the isolating difference, the more challenging this task will be.
  • Provide a category to students (e.g., animals, literary genres, Greek Gods, vehicle types, colors, etc.) and ask them to generate as many items as they can that belong in that category in a given amount of time.

EF Tuck-Ins for Gestalt vs. Details

  • Show a picture scene to the whole class. Ask each student to write or say the gestalt (i.e., big idea) of the picture scene and the three most relevant details that support the gestalt. This helps students improve part vs. whole awareness and how parts are relevant to the whole.
  • Ask students to tell as many parts of an object as they can think of (e.g., parts of a tree: roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc.). Encourage students to use a strategy to determine parts (e.g., move from the bottom to the top of the object, move from small to large parts, etc.).

Here’s to a whole new, EF-filled school year!

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Executive Function, Language Therapy, Pragmatic Language, Social Cognition

Ideas for Social-Cognitive, EF, Pragmatic Language Therapy: Part 2

I promised a part 2, and I shan’t disappoint (shan’t…I went there!). As a continuation from my first post with ideas for social-cog, executive function, and pragmatic language therapy, this second post will keep the ideas flowing and hopefully add to your arsenal of go-to activities.

Visuals, Visuals, and More (concrete) Visuals:

I am steadily learning the importance of supporting social communication intervention with tons of visuals. When I think I’ve reached the visuals peak, I cut and laminate one…more…thing. Why? Because so many of these clients benefit from visual supports early on in their therapy. I recognize that you might be worried about setting them up to be dependent upon these visual aids later, but in my humble experience, I usually end up spinning my wheels and banging my head against the wall when I nix the visuals and overestimate how well the client will perform. Here are a couple ways to make Social Thinking concepts more concrete through…(you guessed it…) VISUALS!

Are you working on mind files or friend files? Use an actual file folder to show how these mental files can store information about others. The amazing Sean Sweeney and Pamela Ely at The Ely Center taught me this fun acronym for teaching kids what kinds of information belongs in a mind file. As you can see, I ended up changing “mind file” to “people file” since my client had such a hard time remembering that these files are about people (and not everything under the sun). However you decide to coin the term, think about using concrete visuals to support initial stages of learning!

 

The Social Detective book from the Social Thinking curriculum is a great resource for introducing kids to critical social communication skills involved in being a social detective, but I have found that creating a real (ok, ok…paper) toolkit gives kids ownership over the social communication tools they are acquiring. I let them add the eyes to their toolkit once we’ve finished our “thinking with your eyes” activity for that day. As we target more concepts (like “thinking with your ears,” “brain in the group,” etc.), they get to add those tools to their toolkit. Sometimes it can be fun to pull out the tools you need in a particular situation. Once again, the visuals are just a support for teaching these foundational skills and making sure the information is relatable and concrete. 

Expected/Unexpected By Context Game

I used this activity to probe my client’s current understanding of expected and unexpected behaviors in different school contexts, but you could very easily use this as a teaching tool as well!

 

I start by having the client choose a context/environment/setting out of a hat (e.g., “In math class”). He then has to sort a variety of behaviors (also picked from a hat) to determine whether they are expected or unexpected in that particular context. Even if you only got this far in the activity, you would have some awesome information about how well the client can determine what’s expected versus unexpected in key environments throughout his day. Once this initial sorting is done (and the subsequent discussion has occurred, if you choose to discuss their choices), you then have the client choose a different context from the hat and switch it into the original context’s place. The client must now decide if some of the behaviors that initially were sorted as expected belong in the unexpected category (and vice versa). Some different context ideas are included below:

 

Why does this skill matter? It’s not enough that clients can determine what’s expected or unexpected in a static setting. They need to recognize that expected behaviors may change depending on the context: it’s fine to run around on the playground at recess, but running becomes unexpected when you are in the middle of social studies class. This activity helps to support the cognitive and social flexibility needed to shift expectations between settings.

Thinking With Your Ears: Easy Activity to Introduce Inferencing Skills

I had to start verrrrrrrrrry basic when introducing “thinking with your eyes” and “thinking with your ears” for my current client. Specifically for “thinking with your ears,” we spent a fair amount of time just identifying the sources of sounds with a couple different sounding board apps (Touch the Sound by Innovative Mobile Apps and SoundBoard by Lux HQ Ltd.). Once he was tuned into thinking about what he heard, I moved to the activity I’m here to highlight. I laid out sets of pictures I’d printed, and the client’s job was to think with his ears to choose the picture that best matched my verbally read sentence. I started with very concrete sentences, and slowly increased the complexity to include sentences or utterances that required increasing amounts of inferencing skill. The more abstract the sentence, the more the client had to listen for contextual clues to guide accurate picture choice!

 

Examples of sentences for the pictures above:

Easy/Concrete: “The man wore a tiny hat”

More Challenging: “It was cold outside”

 

Examples of sentences for the pictures above:

Easy/Concrete: “The boy was working on his test”

More Challenging: “All his studying paid off in the end” or “I wonder what the teacher will ask”

 

Examples of sentences for the pictures above:

Easy/Concrete: “The kittens snuggled on the blanket”

More Challenging: “They looked almost identical” or “All three enjoyed being in the sunshine”

Well, that sums up part 2 of my therapy ideas for this tricky, but awesome group of clients! There are so many great resources out there, and I encourage all of you to find ways to share the cool intervention techniques you’re using!