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The Connection Between Executive Function and Social Communication Skills

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Monday, May 11, 2015

By Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP

Much has been written and discussed in recent years about Executive Function (EF) challenges faced by students diagnosed with a language-based learning disability (LBLD). Also in the forefront are conversations amongst educators, speech/language pathologists (SLPs), and neuropsychologists about interventions for students with social communication disorders (SCD). I have been privy to many of these discussions, and have read countless articles on these topics.  But my “real education” comes from my over 25 years of working with children and adolescents with both EF deficits and SCD.  Current research supports the notion that social communication skills can be impacted by EF deficits.

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift one’s thinking, is a component of EF. Consider the fast-paced nature of a social interaction that is filled with both verbal and non-verbal information. If a person has difficulty with cognitive flexibility, then social interactions may be compromised.

John (not his real name) is a student who teachers often refer to as “bright and readily shares his insights with his classmates”. However, teachers also describe him as “rigid and inflexible”.  He performs best with structure and predictable routinesJohn has been diagnosed with a LBLD, EF deficits, and a SCD. There are certain topics that John can provide a wealth of information about. He may come across as a “know it all” and does not recognize when others are disinterested. When a teacher or a peer provides an alternate view to his own, John may become argumentative. He often perseverates on his line of thinking and cannot shift gears. A student like John often perceives situations as black and white; he does not see the “gray.” 

This is an overly simplified example of a quite complex dynamic. Ultimately, we need to provide support with both executive function skills and social communication skills.  Rather than reacting in frustration to a “difficult” exchange, I encourage educators and parents to take a proactive approach. STRATEGIES (be sure to use specific language and provide clear expectations):

  • Teach cognitive flexibility and problem solving

“I understand that you didn’t edit your essay because I had asked you to make corrections in red and you didn’t have a red pen. What is one thing you could have done to get your homework done?” Help the student generate some possible solutions (e.g., borrow a red pen, use a different color pen and email the teacher about it, etc.). Use opportunities like these to teach/model problem solving. (Identify Problem->Generate 2-3 Possible Solutions->Consider Consequences->Make a Choice->Create a Plan)

  • Acknowledge, then redirect; avoid getting into a debate

“I know you want to keep talking about _____, but we have to move on.” “I know you are trying to be helpful, but Tim didn’t ask for your help.” “I know it bothers you that Jane is out of dress code, but you don’t need to comment on it. The adults will handle it.”

  • Tell the student how his words or actions make you/classmates feel

“I’m feeling frustrated because you’re not following my instructions?” “Jane felt embarrassed when you said she was out of dress code in front of everyone.”

  • Alert the student when there are going to be changes in the routine

“Tomorrow Mrs. Gross will be teaching this class so that I can attend a conference. She will collect your homework and help you edit your composition drafts.” “Friday’s class is going to be shortened due to an extended recess so we won’t be doing our usual warm-up activity.”

  • Identify and discuss the “gray”; not everything is “black and white” “I know that it’s officially springtime according to the calendar, but it is 30 degrees outside, so we need to wear our winter coats.”

To learn more about Linda Gross's work, check out the following links:

linda gross headshot

Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP – Landmark High School Speech-Language Pathologist/Consultant and Landmark Outreach Program Adjunct Faculty

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Tags:  cognitive flexibility education research Executive Function Executive Functioning Landmark Outreach Program Landmark School language-based learning disabilities learning disabilities social communication disorders speech and language speech and language pathologist speech pathologists

An Interview with Vanessa Rodriguez

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Teaching Date Posted:  Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dr. Jessie Voigts from Wandering Educators recently reviewed Landmark360 expert blogger Vanessa Rodriguez’s latest release, The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education. Below you will find a brief review and interview with the author.

“Let me tell you about “The Teaching Brain”. I picked it up, and couldn’t put it down. It delves deep into how teachers teach – and provides an interactive model for teaching – and learning. The process of teaching isn’t simple. There are myriad factors we need to think of and there are a plethora of teaching models that have been promoted over the years. And yet, there has still been something missing, a common-sense approach to teaching the same way we live our lives – thoughtfully, interactively, developmentally, and with purpose. This book, this exciting research, is that piece of the puzzle that has been missing.”  – Dr. Jessie Voigts

Interview with the author

Voigts: Please tell us about your new book, The Teaching Brain 

vanessa rodriquez headshotRodriguez: The Teaching Brain challenges widely accepted theories of teaching and offers a unique idea based on a simple yet empowering truth: we are all teachers. This book draws on the science of human development to redefine teaching as a social cognitive skill that develops in all people over time. The book marshals a wealth of research and experience to construct an entirely innovative framework for thinking about, talking about, and supporting this essential social endeavor.

Voigts: What inspired you to write this book?

Rodriguez: I spent over a decade in a classroom trying to defend my teaching decisions. I often found that the language I was using was not what administrators, researchers, and policy makers felt was appropriate evidence. I thought that a doctoral degree would help me to do this. What I found instead was that we don't have an understanding of teaching as we do learning – we don't understand the natural development of teaching in all humans. It suddenly made perfect sense to me that for all of those years I struggled to describe my teaching because we have a very limited vocabulary and overall framework for what it is! I wanted to open the door to a new way of defining teaching.

Voigts: Your theory of teaching takes into account real life interactions — and the growth of teachers. Can you give us a few examples as to how you developed your theory?

Rodriguez: It's hard to identify a specific example within the development of this theory since this theory is just how I see the world.  Teaching is a human interaction. Any time something involves an interaction with another human you have to take into account the complex nature of the brain. Our brains are complex dynamic systems.  Because they are dependent on our personal context they are forever changing. I would also note that most theories of teaching are actually stemming from theories of learning which is why they don't account for real life interactions or the growth of teachers. They are learner-centric and not about how humans teach but how humans learn. My theory is specifically about how we all develop our ability to teach.

Voigts: Why do teachers need to read this book?

Rodriguez: We are all teachers from as early as age one, we have the ability to teach and we teach without any prompting. However, we've never considered why we naturally teach nor how that natural ability shifts when we teach in the artificial setting of a classroom. By understanding the natural development of teaching, you'll become enlightened on your personal development.  Rather than being told how to teach based on a one-size-fits-all approach, you can discover your own teaching awarenesses; and therefore how you can more effectively interact with your learners.

Voigts: What's up next for you?

Rodriguez: The book highlights the overall theory I've developed on teaching but there's actually a side of my research that it doesn't delve into much. I'm currently designing and conducting studies to further understand the development of how humans teach.  In the fall, I'll be looking at teachers and students brain activity as they interact. I hypothesize that when they feel like the interaction has been successful, we'll likely see their patterns of brain activity synchronize. So rather than just saying "when it's working you can feel it," we'll actually be able to say you can also see our brain activity synchronize and act as a cohesive system rather than individual parts!

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Tags:  classroom practice education policy makers education research education technology interactive model for teaching Landmark School Landmark School Outreach Program language-based learning disabilities learner-centric student assessment teacher evaluation teaching styles teaching theories
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