Today host Lori Boll speaks with Helen Trethewey, an experienced inclusion leader with a passion for early identification of children with learning differences. She has worked in education for over 29 years in the UK, Belgium, Hong Kong, Vietnam and now Sweden.
Helen is Dyslexic herself and is a specialist Dyslexia teacher and assessor. She also authors a blog on twice exceptionality. On today’s show Helen and Lori discuss how executive functions impact students with learning differences such as ADHD and Dyslexia as well as common misconceptions teachers and parents may have about student performance. Helen gives some easy to implement strategies to support students with their working memory and task initiation. We’re sure you’ll have many takeaways from today’s podcast.
Resources from today’s show:
Helen Trethewey is an experienced Inclusion leader with a passion for early identification of children with learning differences. She has worked in education for over 29 years in the UK, Belgium, Hong Kong, Vietnam and now Sweden. She is a specialist Dyslexia teacher and assessor. Helen understands the needs of children and families in the international context and regularly shares information through writing articles and public speaking. She writes a popular educational blog called ‘Twice Exceptional’ which has up to date, informative articles about neurodiversity and learning differences.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
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Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hello everyone. Today, I speak with Helen Trethewey who is an experienced educator with a passion for early identification of children with learning differences. She’s worked in education for over 29 years in the UK, Belgium, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and now in Sweden. Helen is dyslexic herself and is a specialist dyslexia teacher and assessor, and authors a blog on Twice Exceptionality. On today’s show, Helen and I discuss how executive functions impact students with learning differences such as ADHD and dyslexia as well as common misconceptions teachers might have about student performance. I’m always studying and wanting to learn more about executive functioning skills and I learned quite a bit from Helen today. For instance, did you know that students with ADHD’s executive functioning skills are 3 years behind? Yeah, me neither. I’m sure you’ll take away a lot from today’s podcast as well. So now on to the show.
Well, hello Helen and welcome to the podcast.
Helen: Hi nice to nice to talk to you this evening.
Lori: Well, you have been a SENIA presenter at 2? virtual conferences in the past or just one?
Helen: I did, I originally spoke in Hong Kong a number of years ago, in person. That was my first time with SENIA, which was great, and then I was due to speak in the Philippines, which was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Lori: Oh, we all know what happened there…
Helen: Yeah, and then I think, I actually think I’ve done two virtual ones.
Lori: Yes, yes! So, you’re very well known in the SENIA world and thank you for all you’ve done. And today, we’re here to talk about executive functioning skills. Not a new topic for most of us for sure but very important to circle back to and I feel like there’s always new information coming in about it, new strategies, and it’s just, we just need to know more about it and dive in, right?
Helen: Yeah, exactly, I mean like, I’ve just moved to Stockholm and I have a whole new school now so I actually work with students from 3 all the way to 18, and it has really made me come back to executive functions because it’s interesting how many students, particularly in secondary schools are so capable, they’ve got great verbal skills, you know, they notice patterns and connections, but then they just come across as being so disorganized. They don’t remember their homework, they they don’t remember where they’re meant to be, they just they just don’t show themselves at the best in in lessons. And largely that is due to executive functions.
Lori: Yeah, yeah and so important in our role we often hear frustrated parents or teachers you know they call students lazy and ask why don’t they just work harder, why can’t you just turn in the work, why are you so disorganized… how do these executive function difficulties differ from character flaws or choices of students?
Helen: I’d say… it is one of those areas where the more I work in international schools and the more I work with international teachers, it’s interesting how people still very much view people’s performance on, to do with effort. You know. If you make more effort, that you could listen to instructions better, if you make more effort, you could do your homework, if you make more effort, you could get started… and it’s kinda just trying to understand, actually for someone with ADHD, those executive functions are delayed and it’s not really within their control at all. I was really inspired by a webinar recently with Chris Dendy, and she was talking about the 3-5 year delay that students can have in their executive functions. And when you think about it, that’s huge. If you’ve got a 12 year old student and you’re expecting them to be fairly independent, fairly mature in the way they’re approaching their studies, where, in terms of their executive function, they’re actually more like an 8 year old. And that’s a huge difference. Sometimes, our expectations of students are unfair. We think they have control over their emotional regulation for example or they’re mindful of how their behavior is affecting other people or even themselves, and yet, it isn’t actually within their capacity to really understand those things.
Lori: Wow. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t heard about that three years delay. Can you repeat the name of that study or the author?
Helen: Um, I think she’s an American author, I think written quite a lot of books. I was lucky enough to listen to a webinar by her, she’s called Chris Dendy and she’s a doctor. Some of her children have ADHD and one of the big point she was making in her webinar was that, you know, a lot of these students do become good eventually but it can be a long way down the line. I mean, the research now is saying that executive functions aren’t fully developed until the age of 25, which is why many students actually struggle when they’re at university and that’s a typical development. Then you take students who maybe have ADHD and you got that delay, they’re probably not going to be “coming good”, if you like, until they’re in their 30s.
Helen: Which, you know, is kind of worth bearing in mind.
Lori: Yeah. Well, thank you. I’ll put those, her research, into our show notes so people can refer to that when they’re listening to this. So, okay, well, let’s talk about executive functioning. You’ve mentioned executive functioning and ADHD, uh, does the same 3 year thing kind of go for dyslexia as well?
Helen: I’m not aware of any research that says that, but it does definitely affect students with dyslexia. And given that a lot of students with dyslexia have ADHD and dyslexia, there’s a lot of overlap.
Helen: So it’s less, less certain what the delay is for someone with dyslexia, but if you including working memory, a lot of the information online says that there is 8 executive functions and they include working memory in that. And if you’re doing that, that is huge for someone with dyslexia, as that is one of the main kind of challenges in life.
Lori: Okay, yeah.
Helen: And it has such a knock on effect. I do find it quite interesting that they say there’s 8 executive functions, if you actually look at the list of them, things like impulse control and emotional control, organization, prioritizing, they’re so interlinked that it really is just the skills for life and the thing with the school system is, our whole school system is built around the typical development of these skills. So if you think of what you’d expect of an infant, a preschool child, then an elementary school or infant child, the benchmarks we put into education are all based around these executive functions developing normally. And so that’s where it’s challenging, when we’re expecting students in secondary school to be suddenly independent and do their homework in a timely manner and they’re given a task so they should know what to do, and yet, many of them haven’t got the executive function to be able to be independent.
Lori: Mmhmm. You know, that’s interesting. I had a Director of Student Services reach out to me somewhat recently to ask if there was some sort of continuum of when, or I guess, expectations of when a student should be able to do these certain executive functioning skills. There’s nothing like that that would exist, right?
Helen: Ummm, yea, I mean, I think it’s interesting how it’s almost like a, an intrinsic kind of expectations, when you’re like, teaching a child who is like 6, who just blurts out the answer. Well, that’s perfectly, you know, it’s perfectly fine, it’s within a normal range.
Helen: But then you take someone who is 11 and they’re just saying hte first answer that comes into their head, that really is unacceptable. And then that becomes, instead of being a normal behavior, it becomes, that child being difficult or it becomes that idea of a character flaw.
Helen: When in fact, that person is still doing their best, just isnt’ age-appropriate as it were.
Lori: Mmmhmm. Well, let’s talk more about executive function and task initiation. It’s one that I know that many parents, many teachers get frustrated with becaues you set a student to work and you follow up about 10 minutes later or 15 minutes later and nothing is done, or there’s a long project and you know, might take weeks for our middle school and high school students to do an assignment, and then you follow up a week, 2 weeks later, and nothing has been done. So, can you share, elaborate a bit more on the genuine difficulty that some students have with task initiation?
Helen: Yea, I mean task initiation, I would say, is one of the ones that people don’t talk about very much and I would say many teachers and parents don’t think it’s a genuine difficulty. I think they feel that the student is just choosing not to get started, and actually, as you unpack it, it’s quite complicated unfortunately, in tha there can be a lot of reasons why a student might not get started. For someone with ADHD, you have the brain chemicals that affect how you approach different tasks and genuinely when you’re doing something that is routine or you consider boring, the chemicals for your neurotransmission are not being produced sufficiently. So it’s not that you don’t want to do the task, I mean, maybe you don’t want to do it because it’s boring but it’s not so much that you don’t want to do it, it’s that you can’t do it, whereas when you’re doing something like a computer game that’s fun, your brain produces the chemicals that you need and you are energized and in the zone. And that thing in itself is very puzzling for both parents and teachers. And that’s when it does feel like a choice because obviously they can’t see what’s happening inside someone’s brain. They can’t know that it’s almost painful for this student to try and do this routine task that you think is very straightforward. So that’s a big factor, I would say, for people with ADHD particualrly, but even those with dylexia or people who find it difficult with task initiation, it’s quite complicated. There’s an emotional side to it, so there can be a fear of failure, if a student who has had many many experiences where they’ve tried to do a task but it hasn’t worked out relatively well, there’s this sense of “do I even want to start this task and have the teacher not be pleased with me”.
Helen: Or is it better to not start it at all and pretend you don’t want to do it than to actually take the risk to get started. And I think particularly when there isn’t a lot of scaffolding, the fear of blank page, I genuinely think is quite terrifying. I still remember when I was on a teacher training course and we were asked to write a poem on cats. And it just sounds so simple, I know what a cat is, I know what a poem is, and yet, my thoughts were racing – should I make it funny, should I make it short, should it be acrostic, what part of cat should I start, you know, should I start with the tail or the whiskers… and because all those thoughts are endless and you can see other people around you writing, you know, the senes of terror does rise! And to me, that was a real kind of, lightbulb moment but for many students, just seeing that blank page and having the thoughts racing, can be quite overwhelming.
Lori: oh my gosh.
Helen: And that’s why some students just don’t get started, and actually can’t even think of what the first step is, the first step to take.
Lori: That…. Yeah. Total lightbulb moment for me. I’ve had the exact same experience at a PD where we had to write a limerick and in my whole life, I’ve been told poetry is not my thing, growing up in elementary school, teachers were like “mmm. Not really your thing, Lori”, and so we had to write a limerick and gosh, this was about 10 years ago, and I couldn’t do it. I just sat there and when it came time to turn it in, I was like “Yeah, I didn’t do it”. It was much easier for me not to do it, than to fail at writing the limerick. Well. Thank you.
Helen: Yea, I mean, I think the whole thing with fear of failure is a big part. Also for people who’ve got dylexia, and well ADHD, when the teacher is introducing, the amount of focus that has to go into that, processing new vocabulary, you know, their working memory can really become overloaded so by the time it’s becomes time to start working on the task that the teacher wants you to do, you’re actually really drained all your brain energy, if you’d like… and then you just… can’t get started, the task just seems too overwhelming, too many steps, too many things to do. So I think, I mean, task initiation is a lot more complicated than it initially seems than people thinking “Oh, people just can’t be bothered” or “Oh they’re just lazy”.
Lori: Yeah, right.
Helen: Or that they didn’t understand it, because there’s often a misconception that they didn’t understand it. You know, if you take the poem example, I knew what a cat was but I couldn’t get started.
Lori: Sure. Right. Okay. Thanks. So, what can educators do? What strategies, interventions, can we employ to help students with difficulties? We can focus on working memory, study skills, what do you think?
Helen: I mean, there’s a lot of things to do. The biggest thing is actually accepting that the student is doing their best. I think the teachers’ acceptance that what’s happening might actually be that students’ best, might actually have quite a profound effect. And then on the practical side, it is about scaffolding. You know, the teacher is actually modeling what you want, if you’re writing a poem, a story… talks out loud, goes through the thinking process, puts up things on the wall, and then that would be the hook, hopefully, for the students to get in. I think we get caught up in education about being independent and what students can do independently, and we forget that a lot of the learning, even if they are being given sentence starters, scaffolds, and vocab lists, the learning is in understanding the process and in knowing how to get from A to B, and if they need some help along that, I think that’s okay.
Lori: Yeah. That Zone of Proximal Development is right in there. Agreed. Well, let’s then move on to parents. How can we, as educators, collaborate with parents and other educators to better support our students, to help?
Helen: I think the role of the student, I mean, the parent, is absolutely key in that it really does have to be a partnership with the parents and som uch of developing executive skills is with parents. If you think and this is where it’s difficult for students with ADHD, dyslexia, because often their parents have ADHD or dyslexia…
Lori: Oh, yeah…
Helen: And so I would argue that a lot of typical students, we feel like they develop executive function naturally. But actually what happens is watching their parents. They’re watching their parents make the shopping list or have time where they plan out events. They see their parents check their bag the night before to make sure everything is in it, and so they’re in an envrironent where these organiational skills and day-to-day skills are modeled. And that’s a huge part of developing executive functions. Equally, if you’ve got a parent who is always always late and hasn’t planned ahead, then it’s very likely that you will kind of, follow suit, as it were, without realizing there is a way of not being late and planning your time more effectively.
Helen: I think with teacher and parents, the partnership in making students successful is key. I’m all for this idea of pre-teaching. I don’t know how familiar you are with it but the idea that students, rather than doing homework and reviewing what you’ve done in the lesson, you’re kind of getting a heads up on what’s coming the next day and that can make a huge impact in terms of working memory. We know that when you’re looking at things that you’re familiar with, your working memory is not as challenged, so therefore, as educators, if we can get parents working in partnership with us and we use things like Google Classroom, homework task, and we know that the parent will actually support the child and say “look you’ve got this video and you do need to watch it.” That sort of support can really make a difference in the classroom.
Lori: Hm. Interesting. I have not heard of the term free teaching. Free teaching? Is that what you called it?
Helen: Pre-teaching! Some people call it…
Lori: Oh, pre-teaching!
Helen: Some people call it, um, front loading. And there’s a lot of talk a few years ago about flipped classroom. This is more bite size than flipped classroom.
Helen: It’s like, we’re going to read something in class and we’re going to introduce new vocabulary but those things can be shared, particularly when we use platforms like Google Classroom, those can be easily shared specific students but you do, then, need the parents really on board. Because otherwise it’ll just be like other homework tasks that just get ignored and forgotten.
Lori: Of course. Yeah, that was an example of my hearing needing to be checked… I heard free teaching and my brain context just went in a different direction. Hahahaha. Got it now. So, do you have any success stories or case studies that have shown promising results?
Helen: Well, it’s been quite interesting this year, as I’ve said, it’s a new experience for me. I’m working with a lot more in the secondary schools than I have done in the past and I found it really interesting, I just recently diagnosed a student with dyslexia where the parents had suspected it for many many years and I said, I do some study skills session with him. And when we started, I was quite surprised, you know, he didn’t know how to make notes. You know, this is a 14 year old boy whose gone through school and he’s in the first year of IGCSE currently, but suddenly he started doing poorly in his studies when things were more intense, more materials, he started to do badly, hence the reaching out for the assessments. He’d done quite badly on some assessments and then I started working with him and also he also didn’t really know how to memorize things. You know, he, as someone who is dyslexic, it’s really hard to read. But all he would do is just read the materials to himself and then try to memorize it which really wasn’t working at all.
And really, all I did was to teach him one, verbalizing with your own voice, makes a huge difference to your memory and you know, you just have to teach something. Even if you teach the cat, what you’ve learnt that day or you can make a video of yourself you feel uncomfortable talking to yourself, but just the act of verbalizing what you think you’ve learnt triggers the memory slightly and also helps with the idea of retrieval practice. And then you then realize, oh, I didn’t really remember that word and you can check that with your notes. So that was one of the strategies I did with him.
And then the other one was to do with word association. And with particularly, scientific vocabulary, trying to think of something that it, the word, reminded him of to help him understand what it meant. So something like “condense”, think of “condensed milk” that’s really thick and kinda smushed together, the idea obviously that the particles becoming liquid. But those two, it’s really interesting, because those two strategies literally his marks, he’s gone from getting Ds to getting Bs in 6 months.
Lori: Really? Wow, yeah.
Helen: And teachers are amazed. And again, I think success brings concerted success, so now that he sees it’s working, he’s more willing to study, he admits himself, he spends more time studying because he could see that it actually works, the results.
Lori: Yeah, yeah. It’s incredibly how just some explicit teaching of these skills can help our students so much. And it’s just something so simple like that.
Helen: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, it’s not actually rocket science.
Lori: No, yeah…
Helen: Some of the strategies are the most effective are actually the most simple but sometimes we just don’t think to tell the students those things. We just assume they know how to memorize things, how to study for an exam… and so many of them don’t.
Lori: It’s, you know, I do quite a bit of presentations as well on executive functioning, mostly in the middle school / high school, all about the teenage brain and executive functioning, and when I’m listing out the strategies for teachers, sometimes I feel silly, like… “you know, everyone knows this, I don’t know if I should present this because everyone knows this”, but you know, I think as teachers, we get we’re… very busy, and we get really involved with the curriculum and what we need to teach, sometimes we forget that we just need to dial it back a bit and specifically teach these skills to students as we are teaching them the curriculum. So, you know, it is important for us all to learn these explicit skills and you know, review them with our students.
Helen: Yeah, I think particularly when they move to secondary school is where it falls between the cracks, because when I was talking to an English teacher about teaching note taking, they’re like “well, that’s not really to do with English… why should we do it?” or if we’re talking about research skills, an idea of “well, that should be the geography teacher who teaches research skills if it’s important in that subject”, but somehow basics kind of slip through the cracks because everyone assumes that they have these skills or that someone else has been teaching them.
Lori: Exactly! Okay, so let’s talk about one more executive function challenge – procrastination. Something I’m really good at…
Helen: *laughs* yeah, and I think a lot of people are. I was reading an article about Peg Dawson who wrote “Smart but Scattered” and she talks a lot about just baby, baby steps. And trying to get students to take some responsibility by having kind of a realistic goal of what they are going to achieve. If you imagine students who never does their homework or rarely does their homework, to break that cycle, it needs to be something quite small. So she suggests asking the students what time they’re gonna start the homework and where they’re going to do it, and then some sort of small step that is achievable. So it might be just getting their homework out of their bag and putting it on the table at 7 o’clock before dinner, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve got to start the task, but then they do that over a period of time with the idea that once they get over that initial hurdle, perhaps, they will then start to do maybe the first question of the homework, and then over a number of weeks, maybe do a few more questions. I thought that was a veyr interesting strategy.
Lori: For sure, yeah. I’m a big fan of Peg Dawson’s book, “Smart but Scattered” – I use it a lot in my teaching as well. And did you know that she was a presenter, a keynote presenter at one of our SENIA conferences in the past?
Helen: No, I didn’t know.
Lori: Yeah, she came to…
Helen: I just recently started reading her book.
Lori: Yea, she came to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when we had it there, I think, I can’t remember the year… but yea, it was a great conference and we learnt so much from her so. And what about people that think “well, I’ll do it but I’m just really not in the mood for it right now” ? Or I’m tired and tomorrow I’ll be more wide awake and start this task…
Helen: Yeah I think it’s kind of, it’s a misconception, a chap called John Perry, who used to be a professor at Stanford, he wrote an article which was about the idea of your kind of “future self” and you have this idea that if we put off something, then our future self will be more in the mood to do it. And he was just trying to challenge that, saying if we’ve got something that is quite difficult for you to get started with and quite challenging, the chances are, the next day, it’s still going to be difficult and challenging and the procrastination is not actually helping the situation. In fact, it could make it more challenging because you’re up to the wire with the deadline. Which could then create even more problems and challenges for you.
Lori: Yeah, right, yeah. I know for myself, this is a true struggle for me and so I create time that works, so if I’m really going to struggle with a task, I know it’s going to be hard for me, I’ll set it aside in my calendar, a big block of time and I don’t check email, I don’t do anything during that time, and focus on that. That’s one strategy that I use to support that.
Helen: Yeah, I mean, I try… if I’m procrastinating, I tend to find something I think I can achieve… it’s like putting it off but if I’ve got a lot of work to do, I’ll do a couple of short achievable tasks to make me kinda feel good, and then that normally gives me like the kind of positive energy to at least make a start on that thing that I’ve been putting off. But yeah, I find the idea that you’re going to be more prepared to do something on another day is not really… very rarely is the case.
Lori: Well, and I think it’s important, we’ve both just said we procrastinate. I wonder if our students always feel like their teachers or their parents or other people, they don’t have these issues. So I just think it’s important as adults in their lives to share our own executive functioning challenges with them.
Helen: Yeah, no, I agree. I think it’s so important. As someone who, I’m dyslexic and I have ADHD, and so you know, I’m very open with students about the challenges I have and what I found difficult when I was at school, and when teachers can be more honest about their mistakes or more honest about how hard things can be, it’s really powerful for students to feel like they’re not alone and they can be successful as well with the right guidance and the right strategies.
Lori: Well, Helen, thank you so much. THat’s all we have time for today but I’ve learnt quite a deal from you and I’m sure our listeners are really going to take a lot from this podcast.
Helen: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
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