brain, Classroom, Executive Function, Random SLP, self-regulation, Social Cognition, Social Regulation

Building Metacognitive Skills with Brain Talk

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 9.59.58 AM

As adults, we spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking we’ve got our students’ and children’s problems figured out:

“I know why he’s mad…it’s because he can’t get the Legos to fit together!”

“She must be sulking because her friends left her out during recess today”

Grown ups certainly have more life experience than kids, and sometimes we are great at reading between the lines to sense what might be going on under the surface of a seemingly shallow problem. That being said, I’m always amazed at how often I (and others) forget to do the most logical first step in problem-solving with children: asking them what’s wrong. I’m not talking about a “grazing” question; the kind you ask when you already have an answer in mind and are merely extending a formality. I’m talking about a thoughtful, considerate, invitation into problem-solving and self-regulating dialogue; the type of invitation that comes along with Ross Greene’s initial steps of Collaborative Problem Solving (for more information about Collaborative Problem Solving, visit: http://www.livesinthebalance.org).

Here’s the tricky thing about asking a child to describe an underlying trigger for dysregulation: more often than not they don’t yet have the awareness and skills to effectively communicate it. The way I see it (stemming from my research brain rather than my opinion brain), you need the following, in this order, to effectively express a trigger for dysregulation:

1. Metacognition: the ability to think about your own thinking and emotional state well enough to figure out what’s going on internally. This is where brain learning and mindfulness-based strategies come in!

2. Self-regulation: regulation of your thoughts/attention, emotional responses, actions, and motivation in order to behave in an expected way for a given situation. Self-regulation and executive functioning are inherently tied, since self-regulation sandwiches executive function thinking skills (i.e., using mental schemas to manage complex tasks) by allowing for inhibition of impulses and the ability to follow through with the plan.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.26.27 PM

3. Strong (or at least functional) verbal and nonverbal communication skills: collective expressive communication skills to allow you to get your ideas from your “thought bubble” into someone else’s “mind movie.”

I know I’m a speech-language pathologist, and therefore would typically hone in on the third step of this structure. But I’m a unique breed of SLP when it comes to my areas specialization, and I actually live far more in the domains of steps one and two. In my adventures (and misadventures) of working in the world of self-regulation and executive functioning (ok, ok, they’re essentially one in the same), I’ve become very clear that kids need to understand their brains. More generally, everyone should have a basic understanding of their brains that goes beyond “It has a left side and a right side.” As therapists (and teachers, and administrators, and psychologists-hi everyone!), we are, at the core, brain specialists. If we want kids to get to step three (effective communication of their triggers), we need to start by TEACHING them metacognition and self-regulation.

This matters so much to me and my fabulously brilliant colleague, Carrie Lindemuth, M.Ed/ET, that we created a curriculum designed to teach students about key concepts and functions of the brain: Brain Talk. This narrative-based curriculum consists of eight short, white-board animated videos and corresponding lessons plans, discussion points, worksheets, and activities. Different lesson plans and activities exist for early elementary, upper elementary, middle/high school, and a therapy model. Through these videos and the corresponding learning activities, students are introduced to their amygdala (Myg), basal pleasure-and-reward system (Buster), hippocampus (Ms. Hipp) and prefrontal cortex (The Professor), and what happens in the brain during a “Myg Moment” (i.e., fight/flight/freeze avoiding reaction) or “Buster Bam” (i.e., dopamine-driven grab-and-gulp reaction). Additionally, they learn how the integrated conversation (i.e., Brain Talk) between their “emotional” limbic brain and their “thinking” cortex leads to strategic thinking and self-regulated decisions.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.10.19 AM

 Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.14.06 AM

Many of us don’t have the opportunity to learn about our brains until we are in the midst of a crisis, whether it be anxiety, depression, hyper-impulsivity, or significant dysregulation. What a gift we could give to our students to teach them these critical metacognitive skills from the get-go! The Brain Talk curriculum is available through an annual subscription ($50.00/year) at the Brain Talk website (www.braintalktherapy.com). An annual subscription to the curriculum provides access to the full curriculum suite, as well as new materials as they are added throughout the year.

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!