Q&A With My Teacher Mentor: Understanding Executive Functioning

At the beginning of my teaching journey I taught in a standard self-contained classroom. Over the past two years, I have had the fortune to join an amazing group of educators in a charter school that is taking Montessori public and offering access to this unique type of learning to a diverse community of students in a typically undeserved and underprivileged community, for FREE!

Along with Montessori’s concept that the classroom environment can be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child, our school also ef_pullquoteintegrates Design Thinking, the Arts and is an Ashoka Changemaker school. What a mouthful, huh? Well, it is!

With so much to integrate into a day’s curriculum, differentiated small group learning is at the core of running a classroom that also teaches children how to independently go about their day picking and choosing the follow up work that they are most drawn to. That’s right folks, in a classroom of approximately 33 students, while a small group of them are receiving a lesson, all the rest are freely exploring the materials in the classroom and completing work independently.

How is this possible? Well, I will admit it is very useful that each classroom has the benefit of two teachers — but also, one of the central components of running a classroom structured around small group instruction and freedom (within limits) is building a community of trust and being hyper-aware of the need for your students to build self-regulation skills. Or something I have come to learn called, “executive functioning.”

In one of my recent sit downs with my own teacher mentor, Jennifer Heeter, Director of Instruction for the Upper Elementary and Middle School Programs at Urban Montessori Charter School, she answered some of my questions about executive functioning and how understanding it can help me become a better teacher. Here’s a peek at our Q&A, and some insight into how being aware of this developmental function can help any teacher, even if you are in a standard classroom, build trust and teach self-regulation:

Jennifer K.: What is executive functioning?

Jennifer H.: From my perspective, executive functioning is the body’s ability to regulate and control itself. Many Montessorians also call it self-regulation. Essentially it’s about noticing and then bouncing back from a trigger, focusing on a task, understanding and regulating emotions, being kinesthetically aware, recognizing social signs and cues, and setting and following through with goals. From what I’ve learned, the brain at birth is about 70% programmed for emotional reactions, but not regulation. We learn how to regulate (or not) as we develop, based on modeling after the adults and other children in our environment and explicitly taught tools and strategies.

Jennifer K: Why is it important to understand executive functioning, and how can it help me be a better teacher?

Jennifer H: It’s important to understand what it is so that as a teacher, you can focus on the whole child and not isolated traits. Watching a child work, interact, and communicate within the classroom can tell you a lot about where they are in the process of developing these skills. It requires a whole new perspective in how we look at children and what they need to progress. It is easy (for me at least) to look at a child who has been struggling with math and recognize that they have underdeveloped skills in that area, and then find the patience and creativity to come up with new ways to show them the same ideas. It’s trickier to notice their interpersonal challenges and recognize them as “underdeveloped skills” because they show up as negative attention-seeking behaviors. The process a child takes to normalize is very individualized, depending on their background, upbringing, genetic makeup, and exposure to tools and strategies for emotional regulation. Modern neuroscience tells us that children need to attach in order to maximize their learning potential. We need to look at each child to see whether their basic needs are being met and do our best to fill in those gaps and support them where we can.

Jennifer K.:How are some ways I can help teach this skills to my students who have trouble with it?

prezicoverimageJennifer H: If it’s helpful, check out my Teaching to Every Child’s Potential slideshow. Begin with connection. Children can’t take in information unless they feel safe and trust their environment. Then we need to look at their actions and determine the root cause. Children only act out when a need is not being met. What are they looking for? The mistaken belief chart is uber helpful here. Then we explicitly teach skills for problem solving when the child is calm. And practice them. And practice them. And practice them to strengthen those neural pathways so they can easily access those responses when stressed. Mindfulness, brain gym exercises, and community problem solving are whole group tools that help strengthen the whole classroom’s skills. Connecting with the family to share the strategies and build rapport and trust is the last piece so that the child recognizes the importance and experiences the tools in both home and school. Here’s a great article on  thinking outside the box for engagement.

 

Episode 13 – Bootsie Battle-Holt

 

Version 2“I hear of people all the time who made choices based on how they felt about themselves as math students,” shares Bootsie Battle-Holt as she explores the very real history of math anxiety. “It’s really poignant that how students feel about themselves as math students makes a tremendous impact on life decisions. One thing I am actually very thankful for with the common core standards is that we give equal credence to the math practices as well as the math content standards, and math practices are something that I think students can find a lot of success in as math students. Things like making sense of problems and preserving and solving them, that’s math practice number one […] math practices are like life practices and there is a place for everyone to find success.”

Fast Facts about Bootsie

  1. Full name: Bootsie Battle-Holt
  2. Years teaching: 11
  3. Grade/Subject taught(s): Middle school math
  4. Current position: 7th and 8th grade math teacher and math department chair, Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher of the year, 2016-2017 and Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year 2016-2017
  5. Current City: Los Angeles, CA
  6. Favorite books:
  7. Favorite resources:
  8. Mentioned during our chat:
  9. Why teach? “I teach because every kid deserves to spend the school day with people who believe they can aim higher and achieve more than they thought possible; and I love working in a school community that shares those high expectations for all kids.”

Noteworthy Outtakes from Bootsie’s Chat

From her honest dissection of mathematical anxiety and the long term affect it can leave on people whose math avoidance goes beyond the classroom, to her passion for educational policy and vision for teacher training reform – Bootsie shares her journey to the classroom and to the oval office where she met with former President Barack Obama to discuss “the ballooning of standardized testing.

Along with that, Bootsie shares her experience teaching in the same school where her children attend and how’s she’s been able to manage seamlessly incorporating her teacher life with her parent life. As a parent to children in the public school system and a passionate educator, Bootsie is  a fierce advocate for teacher development and education policies that can empower our teachers to engage and teach to the whole child and not only to the test.

“Seize opportunities to talk to other teachers, seize opportunities for professional development,” says Bootsie. “As a teacher a lot of people will  come to you with a lot of requests and you can’t say yes to all of them but, seize opportunities to be part of the bigger picture and step out of your own classroom see what’s happening in education at large.”

Episode 11 – Barry Turner

 

barryturner“One thing I do know as far as black males [in] this country, that is only 2% of the teaching population. And I question that, why? So to me, I feel like it goes back to mentoring again,” shares Mr. Barry on the topic of the low representation of black male teachers in the classroom. “… I think black students do need a black male teacher […] I talk to black male students and I ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘An athlete or a rapper..” and that’s it. I ask students, ‘What do you think about being a teacher?’ And just the look on their face, it doesn’t even come across as an idea, and I feel like it’s because they don’t see it enough.”

Fast Facts about Barry

  1. Full Name: Barry Turner
  2. Current city: Oakland, CA
  3. Years teaching: 17
  4. Grades: Early Elementary, and currently a mixed 1st-3rd grade Montessori Classroom
  5. Favorite books:
  6. Why teach: “I always hope to inspire other children to teach – mainly other African American children.”
  7. Resources Barry mentioned:

Noteworthy Outtakes from Mr. Barry’s Chat with Teachers

From his time as a communications professional turned educator in private schools and now working as a teacher in an Oakland school taking Montessori public and transforming the way children learn — Mr. Barry talks honestly about his journey and his passion for connecting with his students, especially his student’s of color.

Barry also shares his take on the importance of professional development and why it’s imperative that teachers continuously seek out opportunities for growth. Whether to spark motivation, or inspire ideas, professional development and collaborating with peers in the field can be a great way for teachers to stay passionate about what they do.

Episode 10 -Iain Lampert

 

Initially I thought that the best teachers were able to create success stories out of any student, but it really does take two to tango,” says Iain Lampert when recounting one of his own personal a-ha moments as a teacher. “I initially was hurt when a student would transfer out of my class, because I took it personally. And the challenge was realizing how sensitive I was … and to stop taking it so personally.”

14316712_10153870036428202_3288112764384533690_nFast Facts about Iain

  1. Full name: Iain Gabriel Lampert
  2. Current city: Van Nuys, CA
  3. Years teaching: 7, including coaching Speech and Debate since 2010 and teaching speech classes since 2014
  4. Grades taught: 6th-12th
  5. Favorite books:
  6. Why teach? If we don’t, who will?
  7. Some of Iain’s favorite resources:

Noteworthy Outtakes from Iain’s Chat with Teachers

Listen in as Iain takes us on a journey through his time as a child who had no desire to become a teacher, to a High School student who found his voice and passion for speech through various theater and debate classes. And, finally to a dedicated teacher to a future generation of confident communicators.

Iain shares his love for speech and debate and how he  uses his passion to teach children to use the skills they learn in his class in all parts of their lives that include communications – whether interviewing for a job or communicating with a partner.

Some valuable tips he also shares for any new teachers in the field, regardless of grade or content area, is the value of self-reflection. As a lover of all things speech and theater related, Iain talks about teaching being a stage for educating children. He has a deep recognition of all the roles a teacher plays: teacher, friend, counselor and more – many roles that a  teaching program simply cannot prepare you for. But be that as it may, Iain encourages new teachers to never walk into a classroom for the first time without first recording yourself and playing the recording back twice.

First to listen to the audio only. By isolating your voice, says Iain, you are able to hear whether or not there are any problematic things in your voice, such as verbal flubs. Second, Iain suggests watching yourself with the video portion of the recording only to see if you have any awkward hand gestures or if you move in any unstructured or unfocused way that may be distracting your students.