Targeted Intervention Using Executive Functioning and Metacognition

Learning How to Learn at Montana Academy


Student Centered Education

Education has been evolving to be far more student-centered than in generations past. Largely gone is the “sage on the stage” from most academic classrooms and modern learning is much more individualized, hands-on, and emphasizes concepts rather than rote, fact-based content. Historically, struggling students were relegated to remedial classrooms that kept them perpetually behind as the rationale was that content should drive the process of learning. However, new academic approaches like Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Response to Intervention target students in the early stages of their struggle so that they can spend the maximum amount of time in mainstream classrooms.

For younger students, many of these early interventions focus on the basics of reading, writing, and math and helping them to develop the foundational mastery of core subject material. For older students, however, especially in recent years, the emphasis for targeted intervention tends to center around the process of learning rather than simply supplementing classroom instruction. In this new approach to targeted intervention, “metacognition” and “executive functioning” are all the rage.

Executive Functioning, Metacognition & Self Awareness

Executive functioning often refers to the processes of memory, planning, organization, and general self-awareness. In today’s student population with exponential growth in ADHD diagnoses, the development of executive functioning skills is on the minds of many parents and educators. Metacognition is the understanding of our own thought processes and utilizing that understanding to improve our strengths as learners in order to be successful. Developing one’s executive functioning or metacognitive practices are often thought of as a sort of toolbox; students can master particular hard skills (e.g. organization, chunking, and test-prep strategies) in order to better achieve academic success. The shift in focus from content mastery to student process has been an educational breakthrough.

Moving Beyond the “What” and the “How” to the “Why”

There has been marked change in approach from “what” students must learn to “how” they can best learn it and this has undoubtedly created a more supportive, student-centered academic environment. But it still falls short. After all, even the most powerful and precise tools lose their value when their underlying purpose is not fully understood: it is possible to understand “what” a drill is and “how” a drill mechanically operates without fully grasping “why” I should use a drill for a particular task. Or “why” I have been resistant to using drills. Or “why” I have never heard of a drill before.

While the emphasis in academic intervention has shifted from content to process, there still lacks the most critical component which is individualized relevance for every student. Replacing the conversation of “what students should learn” to “how students should learn it” does better to individualize the learning experience while utilizing students’ unique strengths and interests.

Effective, Long Lasting Results

As educators, we can achieve more effective and long-lasting results by guiding students through their own process of learning and by facilitating their understanding, their intent, and why they do what they do in the classroom rather than just providing cookie-cutter skills for how they can do it better. Regardless of whether the approaches taught in an executive functioning class are “data-driven” or “research-based,” they do students very little if they are not inclined to open their backpack, approach a teacher for supplemental support, voice when they are feeling overwhelmed, or become self-motivated to succeed academically.

To get to these more core motivators and inhibitors of student learning, educators and parents must move past the curricular content (the “what”) and even the newest learning strategies (the “how”) and truly individualize the process of learning by understanding the history, patterns, and preferences of their students (the “why”).

Seek to Understand

This is much easier said than done because while these conversations often take place with struggling learners, they can often take the form of shaming or stigmatizing academic failure rather than seeking to understand it.

Homework can often be the most tangible example. There are many reasons for which a student may not turn in their homework on a consistent basis: they forgot it at school, they brought it home but never opened their backpack, they got it out but got distracted, they got it out but were overwhelmed by it, they refuse to do it to spite the teacher, they refuse to do it to spite their parents, they are bored by it, etc. If presented to either parent or teacher, most of these reasons may illicit feelings of frustration or exacerbation. In response, circular logic is often employed to either convince the student that they need  to do the assignments for one reason or another (the “what”) or a flurry of alternative strategies are offered to support the student in completing the assignments (the “how”). Often these approaches can still be insufficient as they perpetuate a stigma surrounding academic struggle.

Shedding Presumptions

With homework difficulty, an emphasis on the “what” can often be laced with references to a student’s laziness, lack of motivation, defiance, or other qualities that may be presumptuous and inaccurate. An emphasis on the “how” can often contain veiled references to a student’s lack of capacity, particular disability, delayed skill development, or other qualities that may be equally presumptuous and inaccurate. In moving towards the “why” it becomes necessary to shed these presumptions and labels and approach the student with genuine curiosity and lack of judgment. It is neither good nor bad that a student did not do their homework because they forgot it at school. It is neither right nor wrong that they refuse to do their homework as a passive jab at their parents for pushing academic excellence so hard. If students are to be expected to take the vulnerable leap to discuss these core issues with those who seek to support them, the relationship between those individuals must be based on acceptance, patience, and an understanding that turning around academic difficulty will not happen overnight. Understanding the “why” and then developing specific and individualized approaches to doing school differently takes time, trial and error, and perseverance, as addressing root causes of academic overwhelm versus disengagement versus defiance will all be rooted in different origins and will require different tactics to correct.

Shifting to Process Development

The significant shift in education from remediation to process development based on targeted interventions has been monumental as far as shifting the emphasis from content to student. Executive functioning coaching, academic skill building classes, metacognitive exercises and other innovations have done much to help many struggling students. For many others, however, simply suggesting new strategies and study tactics is insufficient, as there are deeper causes for their academic difficulty. The next step in innovative academic supports must be to examine these causes on a very individual basis for students, in ways that neither judge nor stigmatize, so that students can better understand not only how their minds operate, but why they are inclined to approach school how they do.

If this step is missed, we as educators risk continuing the process of trying to have students fit within an existing academic mold, rather than giving them the opportunity to create their own.