The UDL Educational Technology Guide 2019-2020: Technology for Special Education

John F. O'Sullivan

Chapter 2 Executive Function

Executive function is a big word that is thrown around in special education circles all the time. We do not talk about what it truly is and the impact when someone has a weakness in this area. To understand what is at stake, we need to look at people that are successful in our education system. Many of the people that go to the best colleges, get the highest grades, have above average IQs, also have strong executive functions. We often hear that they are successful because they work harder. There is some truth in that because successful people are also able to work longer hours. The smartest people in our society often do not go to the best schools. There are many people with highly gifted IQs that do not do well in school. Certainly, there can be many reasons for success or failure. A commons problem of individuals underachieving in school is a weaker executive function. 
Of course, there are many other variables that can affect school achievement. Typically, people that are higher achievers in school have strong executive functions and above average IQs. As a professional, we do not talk about how executive function is an important trait for successful people. We only talk about it when students struggle. 

The good news with executive function is that it is developmental. That means that as young individuals get older executive function can improve. For some, it might take a number of years. Young students that show up late do not hand in their work, forget important details can overcome these deficits over many years. As educators, we do not usually work with fully grown adults. It is nice to know that we have the technology to help fill in the gaps in development. The best part of technology is that you can bring it with you when you leave school. The teacher that breaks everything down into small pieces stays in the building after the student graduates. 

Students that have deficits in the area of executive function need technology to help them organize, prioritize, remember important details, and to get written forms of directions. With the large numbers of students with executive function issues, it is important to have all files accessible. Otherwise, special education teachers and parents cannot help with deficits in organization, directions, memory, and goal setting. Not having files online and easy to access stops basic accountability, prevents special teachers and parents to stage interventions to prevent poor academic performance. You cannot fix executive function problems with failing grades. 

Sometimes what we are calling executive function issues are receptive and expressive language issues. We tend to assume that when we say something, people are listening and understand what we say. If a child does not know the directions, then they will not plan accordingly. If a child cannot ask a question, they cannot get clarification for what they do not know. Often times what we are calling executive function problems are language issues combined with executive function deficits. 
Boys tend to be behind girls in the area of executive function. The same is true for language. Often times, the issues with boys not following along in class is a combination of the two problems. 

Posting written directions online helps students with executive function deficits. It also helps students with language deficits. When teaching students, we have to consider students that have issues in one but more likely both areas. Not making appropriate accommodations in a classroom is a problem for many students. 

Executive function deficits and language deficits are very common and significant problems. With special needs students being in regular education in large numbers, it is important for all teachers to understand and recognize both language and executive function problems. All teachers need to plan according to help work with both issues. 

Yet, another issue is self-awareness. Students with significant executive function issues often lack self-awareness of their issues. This is a real problem if you are looking to help them adopt strategies to overcome this issue. Students with executive function issues understand the concept of a binder and organizing papers in a folder. Often times, students do not see the need to do so. That leads to a lack of prioritization of organization. With electronic organization, the time needed to spend organizing is significantly less, and the reward for doing is reinforced in far less time. The skills needed for electronic organization students often already have because of familiarity with a computer. When a behavior is rewarded, that can help create self-awareness over time. Lack of self-awareness, weak executive function, and language deceits can combine to create significant problems in education. The answer is electronic organization and the use of educational and assistive technology. 

Offline files are not accessible. All special needs students need files to be accessible. Files that are electronic and posted online are accessible. I hear teachers giving reasons why screen time is bad or that using technology does not help students with disabilities. Refusing to use technology prevents students with disabilities from accessing files. Examples of accessing files include speech to text, text to speech, electronic organization for executive function, written directions for students with speech and language, technology for students with writing issues, language support for lower functioning issues and many other examples. When you look at the list, there are examples of technologies for everyone with a disability. Federal disability law trumps your teacher contract or past practices.  

I recommend putting all documents online with a program like Google Classroom. Please take the time to look through a large number of technologies that help with executive function. Please understand the importance of using technology.

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