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This is kind of a book review and summary for one of our favorite resources -  the Smart but Scattered family of books. We’ve mentioned the original before briefly in other articles but wanted to expand upon some of the ideas promoted by the books and coursework the authors have come up with because they’re really helpful.

A quick note - we aren’t receiving any endorsements or kickbacks of any kind for this article. It’s  something we love and wanted to recommend. Whether you buy the books or not, and if you choose to buy them, where you buy from makes no difference to us. We wanted to share something that’s helped us professionally. 

What Are Executive Functioning Skills?

According to the authors Peg Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD, “Executive skills refer to the brain-based, cognitive processes that help us to regulate our behavior, make decisions, and set and achieve goals.” 

You know when you’ve got a student with struggles in this area. You can also tell when a student has strengths in executive functioning skills. You can probably name at least one of each kind of student right now. It’s possible that you did not recognize or define these strengths or weaknesses as “executive functioning skills”, though.  

There are eleven skills the authors have thoughtfully divided “executive functioning” into which may help to clarify our understanding. The authors say that they defined these skills in such a way because they wanted to help give parents and educators the capacity to categorize their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the children they live or work with. 

We’ve listed the categorization below, and you can find out more information about the definitions and examples of each category here on the authors’ website. 

  • response inhibition
  • working memory
  • emotional control
  • sustained attention
  • task initiation
  • planning/prioritization
  • organization
  • time management
  • goal-directed persistence
  • flexibility
  • metacognition

Why Is Definition Important?

Knowing where your own strengths and weaknesses lie in executive functioning skills (and we all have both strengths and weaknesses among these areas) is a crucial first step to helping students who need to strengthen any one of these skills. 

In every book the authors have made in this series, they offer quick diagnostic tools to help you rate and categorize your strengths in each of the 11 specific skills. The same is true for your students. There are diagnostic questionnaires that will help you quickly determine which skill needs improvement, and which skills can be counted on as strengths. 

We wanted to touch on  a few of these ideas, but if you want more detail (and there’s a lot more available), we’ll recommend their books below. 

A Summary of Some of the Principles for Improvement

Observe and Target the ABCs

This information is not “new” to some. Many educators in special education use this to determine what skills to build, how to add things to improve or ensure a student’s success, and to monitor the efficacy of their strategies. 

There are lots of documentation templates based on the following information available on www.teacherspayteachers.com. There are also many examples on Pinterest and discoverable through any search engine by typing “ABC behavior report”. If you need to specify at all, add “special education”, and that will undoubtedly get you to the right destination. 

Here’s more detail about what this sort of documentation means and how keeping it may help you help your student.

A Is For Antecedent

The antecedent is the “before” of the event. It’s helpful to record information about where a student is (ie: at recess, in the classroom, transitioning to lunchroom via the hallway, etc…) when an undesired behavior occurs. Also note who is present in addition to the student and what time of day the incident occurs.

The first thing to add when working with a student struggling with executive functioning skills is not the behavior itself, but the environment and antecedent. After noticing, you may be able to stop unwanted behaviors before they start by altering the environment. This is something many of us naturally do, like when we separate two students who are irritating each other or getting into trouble together. 

Because many of us do this sort of thing naturally, you may feel reluctant to go to all the trouble of actually recording this information, but we encourage you not to skip the step for two reasons: 1) documentation, and 2) pattern recognition.

Documentation makes the educational world go ‘round. We’re fueled by it, funded by it, and it’s a necessary evil. We might as well use documentation that makes our lives better (and that of our students) if we have to provide documentation anyway. An ABC chart is a great addition to evidence of the need for intervention in an IEP meeting.

It’s also much easier to recognize patterns in behavior when you’re doing written documentation. There’s no way to remember everything that happens with every student every day. Patterns become much more apparent with documentation.

In changing the environment or altering the antecedent to repeated behavioral or cognitive patterns, you may find that you need to alter the task itself in some small way, alter the environment, or change the way you interact with them. The authors have many excellent suggestions and detailed plans for this process.

Observing and altering the antecedent set before a behavior occurs can be quite helpful. 

B is for Behavior

Once the antecedent has been recorded, the next step is observing the behavior itself. 

There are a couple of things to note on behavior. First, students may need tasks broken down into smaller, detailed pieces.

If a child is frozen in inaction, or they are having a meltdown every time they approach a task, consider the fact that they might not be capable of the task, in which case you may need to contribute further direct instruction.

If you’ve seen them succeed at the task, it’s possible they lack motivation to complete the task, interest in the task itself, confidence in their ability level, or  the ability to repeat the success they’ve had in the past consistently. Helping them return to a time when they were successful can help find strengths they have access to and specify what part of the task they need assistance with. 

Much of each one of the Smart but Scattered books deals with how to determine which behaviors to target within each of the 11 skill sets. Along with this information, the authors offer reproducible worksheets and plans customized to address the most common behaviors (and their lists are spot on, so you’re pretty likely to find exactly what you need help with). 

C is for Consequence 

This is the shortest portion of the ABC report. Consequence refers to what is done in response to the behavior. This is a great tool for keeping track of those strategies that work and those that need to be added.  

Teach the Skills Needed

This actually comes up in a lot of social-emotional literature, as well.

As educators, we sometimes expect children to  know how to behave or what to do in certain situations. However, we also know that each student comes to us from their own little world. Some of these worlds include family members themselves who have yet to acquire the skills we are hoping for students to demonstrate. They are unable to teach their children these skills.

Some families have multiple people with the same weakness, or may lack the structure or knowledge to hand down information on needed skills.

Regardless of background or prior knowledge, all students have the right to receive instruction on these skills that are critical to their lifelong success.

Don’t  get angry or annoyed with them. Directly and intentionally teach them the skills they need.

The Goal is Always Internalization

Whenever possible, offer students external changes to aid their success. However, the goal of every lesson in executive functioning skills is for students to internalize the cognitive or behavioral task. You can and should intentionally teach a skill, offering them scaffolding in whatever way you need to for them to be successful.

Then slowly and methodically, pull parts of the support back as the student gains independence.

In math, we do this with multiplication facts, for example. Students will start with multiplication charts and by using manipulatives to work out problems. As they internalize the knowledge of each fact, they need those tools less and less. By the end of the ownership process, they are able to be completely independent of the tools.

That same concept is the basis for handing over ownership for executive functioning tasks. 

Children Want Control

It’s uncomfortable to feel out of control. No one enjoys feeling unstable. Offering that gift to a student is a relief for everyone. 

Routines, schedules, choices, and breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces gives them the freedom to become independent.

Offer the Right Amount of Support

The authors of Smart but Scattered say that this is a difficult task. Most parents and educators err by either offering too little or too much support. Finding the sweet spot is important.

Part of the difficulty is that the sweet spot changes as a child gains independence, creating a kind of moving target. Monitor as their ability grows and changes, add as necessary throughout the process of the student gaining independence. 

And continue adding support even after the student has shown their ability to be successful. Dawson and Guare say that failure often occurs when parents and educators pull support before the student is ready. When you do end support, never do it abruptly. Always make it gradual.

Books in the Smart but Scattered Series

Coaching Students with Executive Functioning Deficits - This book is written specifically for counselors, therapists and educators. Our writers have not seen it, but have used several of those versions intended for parents, and each one is excellent and written for the selected audience in meaningful detail. Others in the profession have used it as a manual and found it useful, so we think it’s a good possibility that it could be worthwhile. 

Smart but Scattered - This is the original version. It’s written for parents of children from 4 to 13, but teachers may find it equally useful (our writers familiar with the text all used this original text).

Smart but Scattered Teens - As the title states, this is for parents working with their teens. 

Smart, Scattered, and Stalled - This version is for young adults who are having trouble leaving the nest and their parents.  

The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success - The final version is for adults who want to improve their own executive functioning skills. 


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