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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
Home > Blog > UDL in 15 Minutes with Amanda Hughes

UDL in 15 Minutes with Amanda Hughes

We have to teach executive function skills, even to high school students

After asking Amanda, a high school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, to share why she focuses on executive functions, she said this:

“…, I found that there’s this myth that high schoolers don’t need support in that area anymore because they’re older, but we know that’s not true and their brains still developing.”

I could not have been more excited! It was an unequivocal statement about how we should be thinking about executive functions (EF) for all of our K-12 learners. These are not skills our students gain automatically. You cannot assume they will have picked up these skills in other environments. The phrase, “they should know this by now” does not apply here! Why? Because their brains, and especially this part of their brains, are still developing. Not to put down our brains, but would you ever pull a cake out of the oven at 45 minutes when the recipe says to bake it for one hour and then say, “Why is it not done?” We need to give the time and skill practice necessary for EF skills to emerge. Here’s what you can do.

Amanda shared some awesome resources during our conversation. For example, to help make the point about brain development, she uses this New York Times interactive brain slider (you will need to enable Flash). I love the versatility of this tool. There’s text, there’s color to emphasize the change, and the user interacts with the tool to see the changes in the brain. Just as Amanda shares, it’s a way to point out to learners (and us) that their brains are still developing and they need to practice skills so they can create those pathways in their brains! I’ve put the rest of her list here.

But what if you and your learners are new to this stuff about the brain? Fortunately, there are tons of other valuable and reliable resources out there. One of the first places I always go for this kind of information is the Kennedy Krieger Institute website. To get you started in your understanding of EF, go to this interview with Lisa Jacobson on executive function and executive dysfunction. She shares what schools can do to improve the development of EF. Next, you’ll find this interview with Alexis Reed of the Boston Child Study Center which shares ideas on how to scaffold for EF. If you want to get subject specific and think about math, you can read this interview with Taylor Koriakin. My favorite quote from this blog is, “Attention: Students can only solve problems if they are able to attend to them. This entails paying attention to directions, sorting out which pieces of information are important to the problem at hand, and sustaining focus on the problem. In order to support attention in the classroom as an educator:” That first sentence gets to the point quickly! A fabulous list of ideas follows.

Next are tools that come from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. This activities guide is part of a larger guide on EF. Once you go to this part of the site, you can easily access other areas such as Executive Function 101, and The Science of Executive Function.

Finally, Understood.org is one of my go-to sites. Built as a tool for parents, it also includes information for educators (there is a fabulous video about UDL from a teacher’s perspective). But I see this site as an excellent tool for communication. Imagine you’ve noticed a student is challenged with EF skills. How do you talk to parents about that? This site not only talks about EF without jargon, it is visually appealing, well organized, and easy to navigate. Obviously, there are plenty of other resources out there about EF, but these are ones I trust for their connection to current research and their interpretation of that research (it’s really important that we push neuromyths out of education!).

When you look at the UDL Guidelines, you see that the guideline for Executive Functions is in the lower righthand corner. It’s in the row labeled, “internalize.” It is placed there because we need to support our learners through the use of Physical Action and Expression and Communication so they can use those EF skills. There’s no reason why you can’t use the information in the above tools right away, but UDL (and I) encourage you to get into the other guidelines to see what they enhance and how they support that bottom right hand corner. After all, it takes the entire framework to guide our learners to become expert learners.