Book Review

Executive Function in the Classroom

The key word in this book's lengthy title, Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students, published by Paul H. Brookes Publishing, is the word "all." While the author, Christopher Kaufman, PhD, lead psychologist for Portland Public Schools in Maine, specializes in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related executive functioning disorders, learning disabilities and pediatric anxiety disorders, professionals will find this text useful for all students, and may even gain a bit of insight into their own cognitive strengths and limitations along the way.

With wit, nurturing discourse and some tried-and-true metaphors, Dr. Kaufman delves into the world of academic and social success by laying out a clear description of executive function skills and the challenges faced by students who have underlying weaknesses.

In what could easily be used as a course textbook for professionals, Executive Function in the Classroom will engage the casual reader who has a strong interest in learning more about the subject. Each chapter is organized with stated objectives, clarifying subtitles and chapter summaries that outline essential points. This is key for those who would rather skim through the obligatory chapters on neuroanatomy and the role of nature versus nurture.

The conundrum of how to assess executive function is addressed early on as Dr. Kaufman shares his own observations, which includes that most children challenged by executive skills in the real world show little sign of problems when tested. Classroom observation, rating scales, work samples and performance reviews are outlined as methods to augment standardized tests and to begin to quantify the deficits observed.

A particularly useful table for teachers charts behaviors that could be observed in children and matches the behavior with the corresponding executive function domain. For example, if a child makes careless errors in math or oral reading fluency, he or she may lack self-monitoring skills. If the student shows a disjointed understanding in reading comprehension or his or her writing flows as one random thought to another, then the breakdown is in planning, organization and sequencing.

Throughout the book Dr. Kaufman inserts tables and charts that help clarify content and reinforce the reader's comprehension. This creates a pleasant overall flow to the book, as the reader won't constantly need to refer to the book's appendix.

While the how-to of identifying the problem is well addressed, it's the chapters that focus on how to remedy executive skills dysfunction that are of greatest interest. Dr. Kaufman explores ways to develop a "frontal-lobe friendly" classroom that includes seven strategies for prevention and intervention. Case studies with strategy-teaching examples walk readers through various situations, such as what to do when a child has trouble with rote learning. In this case, as with many situations presented, Dr. Kaufman points to teaching approaches that are already available that can enhance the child's learning experience. In the case of math weakness in an elementary school-aged child, he points to the TouchMath® (Innovative Learning Concepts Inc.) system as a way to associate abstract numerals with real values in long-term memory.

The final chapter on executive function and social learning difficulties will likely be the most valuable to educators when met with challenging behavioral issues in the classroom.

Using the example of "Mean Max," a fictional stereotype known to almost every teacher, Dr. Kaufman discusses the role of executive function in social-emotional functioning. Touching on impulse control, working memory and adaptability, he presents a positive behavior support plan for Max, detailing an action plan for modifying behavior.

For professionals who work with children with executive functioning deficits on a daily basis, the strategies identified may only serve as reinforcement. Yet it is highly likely that Executive Function in the Classroom will provide seasoned educators with a better understanding of the critical role that they play in their students' success.

Alice Rhein is on staff at St. John Providence Health System in Detroit, MI.

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